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The Theft of History 

Jack Goody is one of the pre-eminent social scientists in the world. 
Over the past half century his pioneering writings at the intersections of 
anthropology, history, and social and cultural studies have made him one 
of the most widely read, most widely cited, and most widely translated 
scholars working today. 

In The Theft of History Goody builds on his own previous work 
(notably The East in the West) to extend further his highly influential 
critique of what he sees as the pervasive Eurocentric, or Occidental- 
ism biases of so much western historical writing, and the consequent 
'theft' by the west of the achievements of other cultures in the inven- 
tion of (notably) democracy, capitalism, individualism, and love. This 
argument will generate passionate debate, as his previous works have 
done, and many will dissent from Goody's perceptive conclusions. Few, 
however, will be able to ignore the force of his thought, or the breadth 
of knowledge brought to the discussion. 

The Theft of History discusses a number of theorists in detail, includ- 
ing Marx, Weber, and Norbert Elias, and engages with critical admira- 
tion western historians like Fernand Braudel, Moses Finley, and Perry 
Anderson. Many questions of method are raised in these discussions, 
and Goody proposes a new comparative methodology for cross-cultural 
analysis, one that gives a much more sophisticated basis for assessing 
divergent historical outcomes, and replaces outmoded simple differ- 
ences between, for example, the 'backward East' and the 'inventive 

Historians, anthropologists, social theorists, and cultural critics will 
all find something of real value in The Theft of History. It will be a cat- 
alyst for discussion of some of the most important conceptual issues 
confronting western historians today, at a time when notions of 'global 
history' are filtering into the historical mainstream for the first time. 

jack goody is Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology in the 
University of Cambridge and a Fellow of St John's College. Recently 
knighted by Her Majesty The Queen for services to anthropology, Pro- 
fessor Goody has researched and taught all over the world, is a Fellow 
of the British Academy, and in 1980 was made a Foreign Honorary 
Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2004 he 
was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and he was elected 
Commandeur des Arts et Lettres in 2006. 

The Theft of History 

Jack Goody 



Cambridge university press 

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Cambridge University Press 

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© Jack Goody 2006 

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To Juliet 

Too often the generalizations of social science - and this is as true in 
Asia as it is in the West - rest on the belief that the West occupies the 
normative starting position for constructing general knowledge. Almost 
all our categories - politics and economy, state and society, feudalism 
and capitalism - have been conceptualized primarily on the basis of 
Western historical experience. (Blue and Brook 1999) 

The Euro-American domination of world scholarship has to be 
accepted, for the moment, as an unfortunate but ineluctable counter- 
part of the parallel development of the material power and intellectual 
resources of the western world. But its dangers need to be recognized 
and constant attempts made to transcend them. Anthropology is a suit- 
able vehicle for such an effect . . . (Southall 1998) 


Acknowledgements page x 

Introduction 1 

Part One: A socio-cultural genealogy 

1 Who stole what? Time and space 1 3 

2 The invention of Antiquity 26 

3 Feudalism: a transition to capitalism or the collapse of 
Europe and the domination of Asia? 68 

4 Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 99 

Part Two: Three scholarly perspectives 

5 Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 125 

6 The theft of 'civilization': Elias and Absolutist Europe 154 

7 The theft of 'capitalism': Braudel and global comparison 180 

Part Three: Three institutions and values 

8 The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 215 

9 The appropriation of values: humanism, democracy, 

and individualism 240 

10 Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 267 

1 1 Last words 286 

References 307 

Index 324 


I have presented versions of chapters of this book at conferences: on Nor- 
bert Elias in Mainz, in Montreal and in Berlin on Braudel (and Weber), 
on values at a UNESCO conference in Alexandria, more generally on the 
topic of world history at the Comparative History Seminar in London, 
on love to one organized by Luisa Passerini, to the Indian Section of the 
Johns Hopkins University in Washington, at the American University in 
Beirut, the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, and extensively 
at the Cultural Studies Programme of Bilgi University in Istanbul. 

In this enterprise, certainly one where angels might well fear to tread, 
a product of la pensee sauvage rather than la pensee domestiquee, but which 
touches upon many of my earlier interests, I have been much stimu- 
lated by the support and help of friends, especially Juliet Mitchell (not 
only for intellectual reasons but also for morale), Peter Burke, Chris 
Hann, Richard Fisher, Joe McDermott, Dick Whittaker, and many oth- 
ers including my son Lokamitra. I'm also most grateful for the assistance 
provided by Susan Mansfield (organizing), Melanie Hale (computing), 
Mark Offord (computing, editing), Manuela Wedgwood (editing), and 
Peter Hutton (library) . 


The 'theft of history' of the title refers to the take-over of history by 
the west. That is, the past is conceptualized and presented according to 
what happened on the provincial scale of Europe, often western Europe, 
and then imposed upon the rest of the world. That continent makes 
many claims to having invented a range of value-laden institutions such as 
'democracy', mercantile 'capitalism', freedom, individualism. However, 
these institutions are found over a much more widespread range of human 
societies. I argue that the same is true of certain emotions such as love (or 
romantic love) which have often been seen as having appeared in Europe 
alone in the twelfth century and as being intrinsic to the modernization 
of the west (the urban family, for example) . 

That is clear if we look at the account by the distinguished historian 
Trevor-Roper in his book, The rise of Christian Europe. He recognizes 
Europe's outstanding achievement since the Renaissance (though some 
comparative historians would put its advantage as dating only from the 
nineteenth century). But those achievements he regards as being pro- 
duced uniquely by that continent. The advantage may be temporary but 
he argues: 

The new rulers of the world, whoever they may be, will inherit a position that 
has been built up by Europe, and by Europe alone. It is European techniques, 
European examples, European ideas which have shaken the non-European world 
out of its past - out of barbarism in Africa, out of a far older, slower, more majestic 
civilisation in Asia; and the history of the world, for the last five centuries, in so 
far as it has significance, has been European history. I do not think that we need 
to make any apology if our study of history is European-centric. 1 

Yet he argues that the job of the historian is 'To test it [his philosophy], 
a historian must start to travel abroad, even in hostile country.' Trevor- 
Roper I suggest has not travelled far outside Europe either conceptually 
or empirically. Moreover, while accepting that concrete advantages began 

1 Trevor-Roper 1965: 11. 

2 Introduction 

with the Renaissance, he adopts an essentialist approach that attributes 
its achievements to the fact that Christendom had 'in itself the springs 
of a new and enormous vitality'. 2 Some historians might regard Trevor- 
Roper as an extreme case, but as I intend to show there are many other 
more sensitive versions of similar tendencies which encumber the history 
of both continents, and of the world. 

After several years' residence among African 'tribes' as well as in a sim- 
ple kingdom in Ghana, I came to question a number of the claims Euro- 
peans make to have 'invented' forms of government (such as democracy), 
forms of kinship (such as the nuclear family), forms of exchange (such 
as the market), forms of justice, when embryonically at least these were 
widely present elsewhere. These claims are embodied in history, both as 
an academic discipline and in folk discourse. Obviously there have been 
many great European achievements in recent times, and these have to be 
accounted for. But they often owed much to other urban cultures such as 
China. Indeed the divergence of the west from the east, both economically 
and intellectually, has been shown to be relatively recent and may prove 
rather temporary. Yet at the hands of many European historians the tra- 
jectory of the Asian continent, and indeed that of the rest of the world, has 
been seen as marked by a very different process of development (charac- 
terized by 'Asiatic despotism' in the extreme view) which ran against my 
understanding of other cultures and of earlier archaeology (both before 
writing and after). One aim of this book is to face these apparent con- 
tradictions by re-examining the way that the basic shifts in society since 
the Bronze Age of c. 3000 bce have been conceived by European histo- 
rians. In this frame of mind I turned to read or re-read, among others, 
the works of historians whose work I much admire, Braudel, Anderson, 
Laslett, Finley. 

The result is critical of the way that these writers, including Marx and 
Weber, have treated aspects of world history. I have therefore tried to 
introduce an element of a broader, comparative perspective into debates 
such as those about communal and individual features of human life, 
about market and non-market activities, about democracy and 'tyranny'. 
These areas are ones in which western scholars have defined the prob- 
lem of cultural history in a rather limited frame. However when we are 
dealing with Antiquity and the early development of the west, it is one 
thing to neglect earlier ('small-scale'?) societies in which anthropologists 
specialize. But the neglect of the major civilizations of Asia, or alterna- 
tively their categorization as 'Asiatic states', is a much more serious issue 
which demands a rethink not only of Asian but of European history too. 

2 Trevor-Roper 1965: 21. 

Introduction 3 

According to the historian Trevor-Roper, Ibn Khaldun saw civilization in 
the east as being more firmly established than in the west. The east had 
'a settled civilisation which has thrown such deep roots that it could con- 
tinue under successive conquerors'. 3 That was hardly the view of most 
European historians. 

My argument, then, is the product of an anthropologist's (or compar- 
ative sociologist's) reaction to 'modern' history. One general problem I 
had was posed by my reading of the work of Gordon Childe and other 
pre-historians who described the development of Bronze Age civilizations 
in Asia and Europe as running along roughly parallel lines. How then did 
many European writers assume quite a different development in the two 
continents from 'Antiquity' onwards, leading eventually to the western 
'invention' of 'capitalism'? The only discussion of this early divergence 
was framed in terms of the development of irrigation agriculture in parts 
of the east as contrasted with the rain-fed systems of the west. 4 It was an 
argument that neglected the many similarities deriving from the Bronze 
Age in terms of plough agriculture, animal traction, urban crafts and 
other specialisms, which included the development of writing and the 
resulting knowledge systems, as well as the many other uses of literacy 
that I have discussed in The logic of writing and the organisation of society 

I suggest it is a mistake to look at the situation solely in terms of some 
relatively limited differences in the modes of production when there are 
so many similarities not only in the economy but in the modes of com- 
munication and in the modes of destruction including, eventually, the 
use of gunpowder. All these similarities, including ones in family struc- 
ture and culture more generally, were set aside in favour of the 'oriental' 
hypothesis which stresses the different historical trajectories of east and 

The many similarities between Europe and Asia in modes of produc- 
tion, communication, and destruction become more apparent when con- 
trasted with Africa, and are often ignored when the notion of the Third 
World is applied indiscriminately. In particular, some writers tend to 
overlook the fact that Africa has been largely dependent on hoe agri- 
culture rather than the plough and complex irrigation. It never experi- 
enced the urban revolution of the Bronze Age. Nevertheless, the conti- 
nent was not isolated; the kingdoms of Asante and the Western Sudan 
produced gold which, with slaves, was transported across the Sahara 
to the Mediterranean. There it contributed to the exchange of oriental 
goods by Andalucian and Italian towns, for which Europe badly needed 

3 Trevor-Roper 1965: 27. 4 Wittfogel 1957. 

4 Introduction 

bullion. 5 In return Italy sent Venetian beads, silks, and Indian cottons. 
An active market loosely connected the hoe economies with the incipient 
mercantile 'capitalism' and rain-fed agriculture of southern Europe on 
the one hand, and with the urban, manufacturing economies and irri- 
gated agriculture of the east on the other. 

Apart from these links between Europe and Asia and the differences 
between the Eurasian model and the African one, I was struck by certain 
similarities in the family and kinship systems of the major societies of 
Europe and Asia. In contrast to the 'brideprice' (or better 'bridewealth') 
of Africa whereby the kin of the groom gave wealth or services to the 
kin of the bride, what one found in Asia and Europe was the allocation 
of parental property to daughters, either by inheritance at death or by 
the dowry at marriage. This similarity in Eurasia is part and parcel of 
a wider parallelism in institutions and attitudes that qualifies the efforts 
of colleagues in the history of the family and of demography, who were, 
and still are, trying hard to spell out the distinctiveness of the 'European' 
marriage pattern found in England since the sixteenth century, and to 
link this difference, often implicitly, to the unique development of 'capi- 
talism' in the west. That link seems to me questionable and the insistence 
on the difference of the Occident and the Other appears ethnocentric. 6 
My argument is that while most historians aim to avoid ethnocentricity 
(like teleology), they rarely succeed in doing so because of their limited 
knowledge of the other (including their own beginnings). That limitation 
often leads them to make unsustainable claims, implicitly or explicitly, 
about the uniqueness of the west. 

The closer I looked at the other facets of the culture of Eurasia, and the 
more experience I gained of parts of India, China, and Japan, the more 
I felt that the sociology and history of the great states or 'civilizations' of 
Eurasia needed to be understood as variations one of another. That is just 
what notions of Asiatic despotism, of Asiatic exceptionalism, of distinct 
forms of rationality, of 'culture' more generally, make impossible to con- 
sider. They prevent 'rational' enquiry and comparison by means of the 
recourse to categorical distinctions; Europe had this (Antiquity, feudal- 
ism, capitalism), they (everyone else) did not. Differences certainly exist. 
But what is required is more careful comparison, not a crude contrast of 
east and west, which always finally turns in favour of the latter. ' 

There are a few analytical points that I want to make at the outset 
since their neglect seems to me partly responsible for our present dis- 
contents. Firstly, there is a natural tendency to organize experience by 
assuming the experiencer's centrality - be that an individual, a group, or 

5 Bovill 1933. 6 Goody 1976. 7 Finley 1981. 

Introduction 5 

a community. One of the forms this attitude can take is what we term 
ethnocentricity, which was, unsurprisingly, characteristic of the Greeks 
and Romans too, as well as of any other community. All human societies 
display a certain measure of ethnocentricity which is partly a condition 
of the personal and social identity of their members. Ethnocentricity, of 
which Eurocentricity and Orientalism are two varieties, is not a purely 
European disease: the Navaho of the American south-west, who define 
themselves as 'the people', are equally prone to it. So too are the Jews, 
the Arabs, and the Chinese. And that is why, while I appreciate there are 
variations of its intensity, I am reluctant to accept arguments that locate 
such prejudices in the 1840s, as Bernal 8 does for Ancient Greece, or in 
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as Hobson 9 does for Europe, 
since they seem to foreshorten history and to make a special case of some- 
thing much more general. The Ancient Greeks were no great lovers of 
'Asia'; the Romans discriminated against the Jews. 10 The rationale varies. 
The Jews ground theirs in religious arguments, the Romans prioritize in 
terms of proximity to the capital and to civilization, contemporary Euro- 
peans ground it in the success of the nineteenth century. So, a hidden 
ethnocentric risk is to be eurocentric about ethnocentricity, a trap post- 
colonialism and postmodernism frequently fall into. But if Europe didn't 
invent love, democracy, freedom, or market capitalism, as I will argue, it 
did not invent ethnocentricity either. 

The problem of eurocentricity is, however, augmented by the fact that 
the particular view of the world in European Antiquity, which was rein- 
forced by the authority derived from the extensively used system of Greek 
alphabetic writing, was appropriated and absorbed into European histo- 
riographical discourse, providing an apparently scientific overlay to one 
variant of the common phenomenon. The first part of the book concen- 
trates on an analysis of these claims with regard to the sequencing and 
chronology of history. 

Secondly, it is important to understand how this notion of a radical 
divergence between Europe and Asia emerged (this I will discuss mainly 
for Antiquity) . ' ' The initial eurocentricity was aggravated by later events 
on that continent, world-domination in various spheres which was often 
looked upon as almost primordial. Starting with the sixteenth century, 
Europe achieved a dominant position in the world partly through the 
Renaissance, through advances in guns and sails 12 which enabled it to 

8 Bernal 1987. 9 Hobson 2004. 10 Goodman 2004: 27. 

11 This point relates to Ernest Gellner's argument with Edward Said about Orientalism in 
Gellner 1994. 

12 Cipolla 1965. 

6 Introduction 

explore and settle new territories and to develop its mercantile enter- 
prise, just as the adoption of print provided for the extension of learn- 
ing. 13 Towards the end of the eighteenth century, with the Industrial 
Revolution, it achieved virtually world-wide economic domination. In 
the context of domination, wherever it occurs, ethnocentricity begins to 
take on a more aggressive aspect. 'Other breeds' are automatically 'lesser 
breeds' and in Europe a sophisticated scholarship (sometimes racist in 
tone, although in many cases the superiority was considered to be cultural 
rather than natural) manufactured reasons why this should be so. Some 
thought that God, the Christian God or the Protestant religion, willed it 
that way. And many still do. As some authors have insisted, this domi- 
nation needs to be explained. But explanations based on long-standing 
primordial factors, either racial or cultural, are unsatisfactory, not only 
theoretically, but empirically, since divergence was late. And we have to 
be wary of interpreting history in a teleological fashion, that is, interpret- 
ing the past from the standpoint of the present, projecting contemporary 
advantage back on to earlier times, and often in more 'spiritual' terms 
than seems warranted. 

The neat linearity of the teleological models, which bracket together 
everything non-European as missing out on Antiquity and forces Euro- 
pean history itself into a narrative of dubious progressive changes, has to 
be replaced by a historiography which takes a more flexible approach to 
periodization, which does not assume a unique European advantage in 
the pre-modern world, and which relates European history to the shared 
culture of the Urban Revolution of the Bronze Age. We have to see sub- 
sequent historical developments in Eurasia in terms of a dynamic set of 
features and relations in continuous and multiple interaction, especially 
associated with mercantile ('capitalist') activity which exchanged ideas as 
well as products. In this way we can comprehend societal development in 
a wider frame, as interactive and evolutionary in a social sense rather than 
in terms of an ideologically determined sequencing of purely European 

Thirdly, world history has been dominated by categories like 'feudal- 
ism' and 'capitalism' that have been proposed by historians, professional 
and amateur, with Europe in mind. That is, a 'progressive' periodization 
has been elaborated for internal use against the background of Europe's 
particular trajectory. 11 There is therefore no difficulty in showing that 

1 3 This advantage has been queried by Hobson 2004, but we have to account for the success 
of the 'expansion of Europe' not only in the Americas but especially in the east where 
it came up against Indian and Chinese achievements in this area. See also Eisenstein 

14 See Marx and Engels 1969: 504. 

Introduction 7 

feudalism is essentially European, even though some scholars such as 
Coulbourn have made stabs at a comparative approach, always starting 
from and returning to their western European base. That is not how com- 
parison should work sociologically. As I have suggested, one should start 
with features such as dependent land tenure and construct a grid of the 
characteristics of various types. 

Finley showed that it was more helpful to examine differences in his- 
torical situations by means of a grid which he does for slavery, defining 
the relationship between a number of servile statuses, including serfdom, 
tenancy, and employment, rather than using a categorical distinction, for 
example, between slave and freeman, since there are many possible gra- 
dations. 15 A similar difficulty arises with land-tenure, often crudely clas- 
sified either as 'individual ownership' or as 'communal tenure'. Maine's 
notion of a 'hierarchy of rights' co-existing at the same time and dis- 
tributed at different levels in the society (a form of grid) enables us to 
avoid such misleading oppositions. It enables one to examine human situ- 
ations in a more subtle and dynamic manner. In this way one can analyse 
the similarities and differences between, say, western Europe and Turkey, 
without getting involved, prematurely, in gross and misleading statements 
of the kind, 'Europe had feudalism, Turkey did not' . As Mundy and others 
have shown, in a number of ways Turkey had something that resembled 
the European form. 16 Using a grid, one can then ask if the difference 
appears sufficient to have had the consequences for the future develop- 
ment of the world that many have supposed. One is no longer dealing in 
monolithic concepts formulated in a non-comparative, non-sociological 
way. 1 ' 

The situation regarding global history has greatly changed since I first 
approached this theme. A number of authors, especially the geographer 
Blaut, have insisted upon the distortions contributed by eurocentric histo- 
rians. 18 The economist Gunter Frank has radically changed his position 
on 'development' and has called on us to Re-Orient, to re-evaluate the 
east. 19 The sinologist Pomeranz has given a scholarly summary of what 
he has called The Great Divergence 20 between Europe and Asia, which 

See Bion 1970, frontispiece and p. 3. Also Bion 1963 where the notion of a grid has 
been used for understanding psychological phenomena. 
Mundy 2004. 

While I have spoken of this form of sociological comparison, there are few sociolo- 
gists capable of carrying out one involving human institutions on a world-wide scale. 
Nor anthropologists, although in my view it is consistent with the work of A. R. Rad- 
cliffe Brown. Both professions are too frequently locked into east-west comparisons of 
a dubious kind. Probably the Durkheimian school of the Annee sociologique came closest 
to achieving a satisfying programme. 
Blaut 1993, 2000. l9 Frank 1998. 20 Pomeranz 2000. 

8 Introduction 

he sees as occurring only at the beginning of the nineteenth century; 
before that comparability existed between key areas. The political scien- 
tist, Hobson, has recently written a comprehensive account of what he 
calls The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, attempting to show the pri- 
macy of eastern contributions. 21 Then there is the fascinating discussion 
by Fernandez-Armesto of the major states of Eurasia, treated as equals, 
over the last one thousand years. 22 In addition, an increasing number 
of scholars of the Renaissance, such as the architectural historian Deb- 
orah Howard and the literary historian Jerry Brotton, have emphasized 
the significant part the Near East played in stimulating Europe, 23 just as 
a number of historians of science and technology have drawn attention 
to the enormous eastern contribution to the west's subsequent achie- 
vements. 24 

My own aim is to show how Europe has not simply neglected or under- 
played the history of the rest of the world, as a consequence of which 
it has misinterpreted its own history, but also how it has imposed his- 
torical concepts and periods that have aggravated our understanding of 
Asia in a way that is significant for the future as well as for the past. 
I am not seeking to rewrite the history of the Eurasian landmass but I 
am interested in redressing the way we look at its development from so- 
called classical times, and at the same time to link Eurasia to the rest 
of the world, in an attempt to show that it would be fruitful to redirect 
discussion of world-history in general. I have confined my discussion 
to the Old World, and Africa. Others, especially Adams, 23 have com- 
pared the Old and New World with regard, for example, to urbaniza- 
tion. Such a comparison would raise other issues - their commerce and 
communication in the development of 'civilization', but it would clearly 
require greater emphasis on internal social evolution rather than mer- 
cantile or other diffusion, with important consequences for any theory of 

My general goal has been similar to that of Peter Burke in his treat- 
ment of the Renaissance, except that I start from Antiquity. He writes: 'I 
seek to re-examine the Great Narrative of the rise of western civilisation' 
which he describes as 'a triumphant account of Western achievement 
from the Greeks onward in which the Renaissance is a link in the chain 
which includes the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, the Enlighten- 
ment, the Industrial Revolution and so on'. 26 In Burke's review of recent 
research on the Renaissance he attempts 'to view the culture of Western 
Europe as one culture among others, co-existing and interacting with its 

21 Hobson 2004. 22 Fernandez-Armesto 1995. 23 Howard 2000, Brotton 2002. 
24 For details see Goody 2003. 25 Adams 1966. 26 Burke 1978: 3. 

Introduction 9 

neighbours, notably Byzantium and Islam, both of which had their own 
"renaissances" of Greek and Roman Antiquity'. 

The book can be divided into three parts. The first examines the valid- 
ity of the European conception of a kind of equivalent of the Arabic isnad, 
a socio-cultural genealogy, arising from Antiquity, progressing to capital- 
ism through feudalism, and setting aside Asia as 'exceptional', 'despotic', 
or backward. The second part examines three major historical scholars, 
all highly influential, who make an attempt to view Europe in relation to 
the world but who nevertheless privilege this supposedly exclusive line of 
development, namely, Needham, who showed the extraordinary quality 
of Chinese science, the sociologist Elias who discerned the origin of 'the 
civilizing process' in the European Renaissance, and the great historian 
of the Mediterranean, Braudel, who discussed the origins of capitalism. 
I do this to make the point that even the most distinguished historians, 
who would doubtless express a horror of teleological or eurocentric his- 
tory, may fall into this trap. The concluding part of the book looks at 
the claim that many Europeans, both scholars and laymen, have made to 
be the guardians of certain prized institutions, such as a special version 
of the town, the university, and democracy itself, and of values such as 
individualism, as well as of certain emotions such as love (or romantic 

Complaints are sometimes made that those critical of the eurocentric 
paradigm are often shrill in their comments. I have tried to avoid that tone 
of voice and to concentrate upon the factual treatment arising out of my 
earlier discussions. But the voices on the other side are often so dominant, 
so sure of themselves, that we can perhaps be forgiven for raising ours. 

Part One 

A socio-cultural genealogy 

Who stole what? Time and space 

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the construction of world 
history has been dominated by western Europe, following their presence 
in the rest of the world as the result of colonial conquest and the Indus- 
trial Revolution. There have been partial world histories (all are partial 
in some degree) in other civilizations, Arab, Indian, and Chinese; indeed 
few cultures lack a notion of their own past in relation to that of oth- 
ers, however simple, though many observers would place these accounts 
under the rubric of myth rather than of history. What has characterized 
European efforts, as in much simpler societies, has been the propensity 
to impose their own story on the wider world, following an ethnocentric 
tendency that emerges as an extension of the egocentric impulse at the 
basis of much human perception, and the capacity to do so is due to its de 
facto domination in many parts of the world. I necessarily see the world 
with my eyes, not with those of another. As I have already said in the 
introduction, I am well aware that contrary trends regarding world his- 
tory have emerged in recent times. 1 But in my view that movement has 
not been pursued far enough in a theoretical direction, especially with 
regard to the broad phases in which world history is conceived. 

A more critical stance is necessary to counter the inevitably ethnocen- 
tric character of any attempt to describe the world, past or present. That 
means firstly being sceptical about the west's claim, indeed about any 
claim coming from Europe (or indeed Asia), to have invented activities 
and values such as democracy or freedom. Secondly it means looking at 
history from the bottom up rather than from the top (or from the present) 
down. Thirdly it means giving adequate weight to the non-European past. 
Fourthly, it requires an awareness of the fact that even the backbone of 
historiography, the location of events in time and space, is variable, sub- 
ject to social construction, and hence to change. It does therefore not 

1 See especially the initial discussion in C. A. Bayly's The Birth of the Modern World 1780- 
1914. Oxford, 2004. 


14 A socio-cultural genealogy 

consist of immutable categories that emanate from the world in the form 
in which they are present to western historiographical consciousness. 

The current dimensions of both time and space were laid down by 
the west. That was because expansion throughout the world required 
time-keeping and maps which provided the frame of history, as well as of 
geography. Of course, all societies have had some concepts of space and 
time around which to organize their daily lives. These concepts became 
more elaborate (and more precise) with the advent of literacy which pro- 
vided graphic markers for both dimensions. It is the earlier invention of 
writing in Eurasia that gave its major societies considerable advantages 
in the calculation of time, in creating and developing maps as compared 
with oral Africa, for example, rather than some inherent truth about the 
way the world is organized spatio-temporally. 


Time in oral cultures was reckoned according to natural occurrences, 
the diurnal progression of the sun through day and night, its position in 
the heavens, the phases of the moon, the passage of the seasons. What 
was absent was any numeral reckoning of the passing of the years, which 
would have required the notion of a fixed starting point, of an era. That 
came only with the use of writing. 

The very calculation of time in the past, and in the present too, has 
been appropriated by the west. The dates on which history depends are 
measured before and after the birth of Christ (bc and ad, or bce and 
ce to be more politically correct) . The recognition of other eras, relating 
to the Hegira, to the Hebrew or to the Chinese New Year, is relegated 
to the margins of historical scholarship and of international usage. One 
aspect of this theft of time within these eras was of course the concepts of 
the century and of the millennium themselves, again concepts of written 
cultures. The author of a wide-ranging book on the latter, 2 Fernandez- 
Armesto, includes in his scope studies of the history of Islam, India, 
China, Africa, and the Americas. He has written a world history of 'our 
millennium', the latter half of which has been 'ours' in the sense of western 
dominated. Unlike many historians, he does not see this domination as 
being rooted in western culture; world leadership can easily pass again 
to Asia as earlier it had passed from Asia to the west. Nevertheless the 
framework for discussion is inevitably cast in terms of the decades, the 
centuries, and the millennia of the Christian calendar. The east as well 
as the centre often have other millennia in mind. 

2 Fernandez-Armesto 1995. 

Who stole what? Time and space 15 

The monopolization of time takes place not only with the all-inclusive 
era, that defined by the birth of Christ, but also with the everyday reck- 
oning of years, months, and weeks. The year itself is a partly arbitrary 
division. We use the sidereal cycle, others a sequence of twelve lunar peri- 
ods. It is a choice of a more or less conventional kind. In both systems the 
beginning of the year, that is, the New Year, is quite arbitrary. There is, 
in fact, nothing more 'logical' about the sidereal year which Europeans 
use than about the lunar reckoning of Islamic and Buddhist countries. 
It is the same with the European division into months. The choice is 
between arbitrary years or arbitrary months. Our months have little to 
do with the moon, indeed the lunar months of Islam are definitely more 
'logical'. There is a problem for every calendrical system of integrating 
star or seasonal years with lunar months. In Islam the year is adjusted 
to the months; in Christianity the reverse holds. In oral cultures both 
the seasonal count and the moon count can operate independently, but 
writing forces a kind of compromise. 

The week of seven days is the most arbitrary unit of them all. In Africa 
one finds the equivalent of a 'week' of three, four, five, or six days, with 
markets to correspond. In China it was ten days. Societies felt the need 
for some regular division smaller than the month for frequent cyclical 
activities such as local markets, as distinct from annual fairs. The duration 
of these units is completely conventional. The notion of a day and a night 
clearly corresponds to our everyday experience but once again the further 
subdivision into hours and minutes exists only on our clocks and in our 
minds; they are quite arbitrary. 3 

The different ways of reckoning time in literate society all had an essen- 
tially religious framework, offering as their point of reference the life of 
the prophet, the redeemer, or the creation of the world. These points 
of reference have continued to be relevant, with those of Christianity 
becoming, as the result of conquests, colonization, and world domina- 
tion not only the west's but the world's; the seven-day week, the Sunday 
day of repose, the yearly festivals of Christmas, Easter, Hallowe'en are 
now international. This has happened even though in many contexts in 
the west there has developed a widespread secular attitude - Weber's 
demystification of the world, Frazer's rejection of magic - which is now 
affecting much of the rest of the globe. 

The continuing relevance of religion in everyday life is often misun- 
derstood by observers and participants alike. Many Europeans see their 
societies as secular and their institutions as not discriminating between 
one creed and another. Muslim headscarves and Jewish headgear may be 

3 Goody 1968. 

16 A socio-cultural genealogy 

allowed (or not) in schools; non-denominational services may be the rule; 
religious studies make attempts to be comparative. In the sciences we 
think of freedom of enquiry about the world and all its contents as being a 
condition of their existence. Religions such as Islam on the other hand 
are often criticized for holding back the boundaries of knowledge, though 
Islam had a rationalist trend. 4 Yet the most advanced economy of the 
world, in economic and scientific terms, is marked by a strong measure of 
religious fundamentalism and a deep attachment to its religious calendar. 
Religious models of constructing the world permeate every aspect of 
thought to such an extent that, even though they are abandoned, their 
traces continue to determine our conceptualization of the world. Spatial 
and temporal categories, originating in religious narratives, are such fun- 
damental and pervasive determinations of our interaction with the world 
that we are prone to forget their conventional nature. However, at the 
societal level ambivalence about religion seems to be a general feature of 
human societies. Scepticism and even agnosticism about religion are a 
recurrent feature even of pre-literate societies. 5 In literate ones such atti- 
tudes occasionally resulted in periods of humanistic thought, as Zafrani 
describes for Hispano-Magrebian culture in the Golden Age of the twelfth 
century and others for Christianity in the medieval period. More radical 
changes of this kind occurred with the Italian Renaissance of the fifteenth 
century and the revival of classical learning (essentially pagan, though in 
many cases adapted to Christianity, as Petrarch envisaged). The associ- 
ated humanism, both classical and secular, led on to the Reformation 
and to the abandonment of the authority of the existing church, although 
not of course to its replacement. But both developments encouraged the 
partial liberation of the frame of knowledge about the world and hence 
of scientific enquiry in the broad sense. Up to this point in time, China 
arguably had the greatest success in this field, in a context where there 
was no single dominant religious establishment, so that the development 
of secular knowledge, which permitted the testing or reassessment of 
existing information, was not impeded in the way that often happened 
with Christianity and Islam. However the ambivalence about religion, the 
co-existence of the scientific and the supernatural, remains a feature of 
contemporary societies, though today the mix is certainly different and 
societies are more divided between 'believers' and 'non-believers', and, 
since the Enlightenment, the latter have a more institutionalized status. 
Both however are still locked into specific religious concepts of time where 
the western notions have come to dominate a multi-cultural, multi-faith 

4 Makdisi 1981: 2. 5 Goody 1998. 

Who stole what? Time and space 17 

Returning to the measuring of time, clocks, which were unique to lit- 
erate cultures, were obviously an important contribution to the mea- 
surement of time. They existed in the Ancient world in the form of the 
sundial and the clepsydra or water clock. Medieval monks used candles 
to record the passing of the hours. Complex mechanical devices were 
employed in early China. But the invention of the verge-and-foliot mech- 
anism, which gave the tick-tock sound and controlled the unwinding of a 
spring, the clockwork, was a European discovery of the fourteenth cen- 
tury. Other escapement mechanisms had existed in China from 725 as 
well as mechanical clocks, but the latter were not as developed as they later 
became in the west. 6 Clockwork, which for some philosophers became 
the model for the organization of the universe, was eventually incorpo- 
rated in portable watches that made it easy for individuals to 'keep time'. 
It also led to their utter contempt for people and cultures who could not, 
who followed 'African time', for example, and therefore could not con- 
form to the demands of regular employment that not only factory work, 
but any large-scale organizations, demanded. They were not prepared for 
the 'tyranny', the 'wage slavery' of nine to five. 

In a letter written in 1554, the Emperor Ferdinand's ambassador to the 
Turkish Sultan, Ghiselin de Busbecq, described his journey from Vienna 
to Istanbul. He comments on the annoyance of being woken up by his 
Turkish guides in the middle of the night because they did not 'know the 
time' (he also claims that they did not mark distances, but that too was 
incorrect) . They did mark time, but by the call to prayer of the muezzin 
five times a day, which was of course of no use at night; there was the 
same problem with the sundial, while the water clock was delicate and 
hardly portable. The mechanical clock, we have seen, was largely but 
certainly not wholly a European invention, which travelled rather slowly, 
being taken to China by Jesuit priests in the process of Christianization, 
and becoming widespread in the Near East only by the sixteenth century. 
Even then it did not appear there in public places as its presence might 
seem to threaten the religious marking of time by the muezzin. Busbecq 
noted that this slowness to adapt was not due to a general unwillingness 
to innovate as some have posited: 'no nation has shown less reluctance to 
adopt the useful inventions of others; for example they have appropriated 
to their own use large and small cannons (in fact, arguably a Chinese 
discovery) and many other of our discoveries. They have, however, never 

6 Needham 2004: 14. He suggests that the insistence on the specificity of the invention 
of the verge-and-foliot mechanism is an aspect of European face-saving in this area, of 
redefining the problem of origins to their advantage, as in the case of the magnetic needle 
and the axial rudder (p. 73). 

18 A socio-cultural genealogy 

been able to bring themselves to print books and set up public clocks. 
They hold that their scriptures, that is, their sacred books, would no 
longer be scriptures if they were printed; and if they established pub- 
lic clocks, they think the authority of their muezzins and their ancient 
rites would suffer diminution." The first part of this quotation indicates 
that here we are very far from the static, non-innovating oriental cul- 
ture posited by many Europeans and which we discuss at greater length 
in chapter 4. However, that rejection of print proved highly significant 
over the long term, both in respect of the measurement of time and of 
the circulation of written information. Both were central in the develop- 
ment of what was later called the Scientific Revolution or the birth of 
'modern science' - their selective application of the technology of com- 
munication impeded advancement after a certain point in time, but this 
is a far cry from a complete inability to measure time, or ignorance as 
to its possibility and value. Still less does this reluctance (itself a rel- 
atively late phenomenon) justify the view that European ways of mea- 
suring time and European periodization are more 'correct', better than 

There is another more general aspect to the appropriation of time and 
that is the characterization of western perception of time as linear and 
eastern as circular. Even the great scholar of China Joseph Needham, 
who did so much to rehabilitate Chinese science, made this identification 
in an important contribution to the subject. 8 In my view it was a char- 
acterization of an over-generalized kind that wrongly contrasted cultures 
and their potentialities in an absolute, categorical, even essentialist, fash- 
ion. It is true that in China, apart from long-term calculations of eras, 
there is a short-term circular calculation of years, by which the name 
('year of the monkey') rotates in a regular fashion. There is nothing pre- 
cisely similar in the western calendar beyond the level of months, which 
do repeat themselves, and in astrology based upon the Chaldean zodiac 
that maps out heavenly space, and where these months acquire a similar 
characteriological significance as in the Chinese years. However, it has 
to be the case that even for purely oral cultures where time-reckoning is 
inevitably simpler, everywhere one finds calculations of both linear and 
circular time. Linear calculation is an intrinsic part of life histories, which 
move steadily from birth to death. With 'cosmic' time there is a greater 
tendency to circularity, since that is how day follows night, moon follows 
moon. Any idea of exclusive calculation having to be made in a linear 
mode rather than a circular one is mistaken and reflects our perception 
of an advanced, forward-looking west and a static, backward-looking east. 

7 Lewis 2002: 130-1. 8 Needham 1965. 

Who stole what? Time and space 19 


Conceptions of space, too, have followed from European definitions. 
They were also heavily influenced by the uses not so much of literacy 
as by the graphic representation which developed along with writing. Of 
course all peoples have some spatial knowledge of the world in which 
they live, of the world around them and of the heaven above, but graphic 
representation takes a very significant step forward in being able to map 
more precisely, more objectively, and more creatively, since one can now 
study lands that are unknown to the reader. 

The continents themselves are hardly exclusively western notions, as 
they offer themselves intuitively to analysis as distinct entities, except for 
the arbitrary divide between Europe and Asia. Geographically, Europe 
and Asia form a continuum, Eurasia; the Greeks made a distinction 
between one shore of the Mediterranean at the Bosphorus and the other. 
Though they founded colonies in Asia Minor from the archaic period, 
nevertheless Asia was very definitely the historical other in most contexts, 
the home of alien religions and alien peoples. Later 'world' religions and 
their followers, greedy to dominate space as well as time, have even made 
an attempt officially to define the new Europe in Christian terms, despite 
its history of contacts with, and indeed, the presence of, followers of Islam 
and Judaism in that continent, 9 and despite the insistence that contempo- 
rary Europeans (in contrast to others) often give to a secular, lay attitude 
to the world. Meanwhile the clock of years ticks to a distinctly Christian 
tempo, so too the present and past of Europe is envisaged as 'the Rise of 
Christian Europe', to use the title of Trevor- Roper's history. 

However, conceptions of space have not been influenced by religion 
to quite the same extent as time. Nevertheless, the position of holy cities 
such as Mecca and Jerusalem has controlled not only the organization 
of places and the direction of worship, but the lives of many people who 
aimed to make the pilgrimage to these sacred sites. The role of the pil- 
grimage in Islam, one of the five pillars, is well known, and affects many 
parts of the world. But from early on Christians too were drawn to pil- 
grimages to Jerusalem and the freedom to make such journeys was one of 
the reasons behind the European invasion of the Near East from the thir- 
teenth century known as the Crusades. Jerusalem has also been a strong 
pole of attachment for returning Jews throughout the Middle Ages but 
more especially with the growth of Zionism and violent anti-Semitism 
from the end of the nineteenth century. That argument about space, 
about Israel as a home which eventually led to the massive return of Jews 

9 Goody 2003b. 

20 A socio-cultural genealogy 

to Palestine, strongly supported by some western powers, resulted in the 
tension, conflict, and wars that have raked the eastern Mediterranean in 
recent years. At the same time, the stationing of western forces in the 
peninsula of Arabia is seen to be one reason for the rise of Islamic mili- 
tancy in this region. In this way, religion 'maps' the world for us in partly 
arbitrary ways, but this mapping acquires powerful meanings relating to 
identity in the process. The initial religious motivation may disappear, 
but the internal geography it generates remains, is 'naturalized' and may 
be imposed on others as being somehow part of the material order of 
things. As with time, this is precisely what happened with the writing of 
history up to this day in Europe, even if the overall measuring of space 
has been less influenced by religion than time. 

But the effects of western colonization are apparent. When Britain 
became internationally dominant, the co-ordinates of space turned 
around the Greenwich meridian in London; the West Indies and largely 
the East Indies were created by European concerns, as well of course as 
by European orientations, European colonialism, European expansion 
overseas. To some extent both the extreme west and the extreme east of 
Eurasia were not in the best position to estimate space. As Fernandez- 
Armesto points out, 10 in the first half of the present millennium Islam 
occupied a more central position and was best placed to offer a consid- 
ered world view of geography, as in Al-Istakhi's world map as seen from 
Persia in the middle of the tenth century. Islam was placed centrally both 
for expansion and for communication, lying half-way between China and 
Christendom. Fernandez-Armesto also comments on the distortions cre- 
ated by the adoption of the Mercator projection for maps of the world. 
Southern countries like India appear small in relation to northern ones 
like Sweden, whose size is greatly exaggerated. 

Mercator (1512-94) was one of the Flemish mapmakers who prof- 
ited from the arrival in Florence of a Greek copy of Ptolemy's Geography, 
coming from Constantinople but written in Alexandria in the second cen- 
tury ce. The treatise was translated into Latin and published in Vicenza, 
becoming a template for modern geography by providing a grid of spatial 
co-ordinates that could be stretched over a globe, with numbered lines 
from the equator in the case of latitude, and from the Fortunate Isles 
in the case of longitude. That work arrived at the time of the first cir- 
cumnavigation of the globe and the coming of the printing press, both 
important factors in map-making. The 'distortion of space' to which I 
referred occurred because orbs have to be flattened for the printed page, 

10 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 110. 

Who stole what? Time and space 21 

and the projection is an attempt to reconcile the sphere and the plane. 11 
But the 'distortion' took on a specifically European slant that has domi- 
nated modern map-making throughout the world. 

Latitude was defined in relation to the equator. But longitude posed 
different problems, because there was no fixed starting point. Yet one was 
needed, because of attempts to reckon time for navigation, which became 
more urgent with the development of frequent long-distance voyages. 
Research at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, near London, facili- 
tated by the work of the clockmaker, John Harrison (1693-1776), who 
built a clock that was accurate on ships at sea, meant that eventually in 
1884 the completely arbitrary meridian of Greenwich was chosen as the 
basis for the calculation of longitude as well as for the calculation of time 
(Greenwich Mean Time) throughout the world. 

Map-making and navigation involved the calculation of heavenly as well 
as earthly space. Once again all cultures have some vision of the sky above. 
But the mapping of the heavens was developed by the literate Babyloni- 
ans and later by the Greeks and Romans. Such knowledge disappeared in 
Europe during the Dark Ages but continued to be pushed forward in the 
Arabic-speaking world, as well as in Persia, India, and China. The Arabic 
world in particular, using complex mathematics and many new observa- 
tions, produced excellent star charts and fine astronomical instruments, 
exemplified in the astrolabe of Muhammad Khan ben Hassan. It was on 
this basis that further European advances were made. 

Until recent centuries, Europe did not occupy a central position in the 
known world, though it did so temporarily with the emergence of classical 
Antiquity. Only since the Renaissance, with the mercantile activities of 
first the Mediterranean and then the Atlantic powers, did Europe begin 
to dominate the world, firstly with its expansion of trade, then through 
conquest and colonization. Its expansion meant that its notions of space, 
developed in the course of the 'Age of Exploration', and its notions of 
time, developed in the context of Christianity, were imposed upon the 
rest of the world. But the particular problem with which this book deals 
lies in a broader perspective. It deals with the way that a purely Euro- 
pean periodization from Antiquity has been seen as breaking away from 
Asia and its revolutionary Bronze Age and establishing a unique line of 
development that leads through feudalism, to the Renaissance, the Ref- 
ormation, to Absolutism and thence to Capitalism, Industrialization, and 

Crane 2003. 

22 A socio-cultural genealogy 


The 'theft of history' is not only one of time and space, but of the monop- 
olization of historical periods. Most societies seem to make some attempt 
to categorize their past in terms of different, large-scale, periods of time, 
related to the creation not so much of the world but of humanity. The 
Eskimaux are said to think the world has always been as it is, 12 but in 
the vast majority of societies present-day humans are not visualized as 
being the primeval inhabitants of the planet. Their occupation of it had 
a beginning which among native Australians was characterized as the 
'Dream Time'; among the LoDagaa of northern Ghana, the first men 
and women inhabited the 'old country' (as tengkuridem) . With the com- 
ing of 'visible language', of writing, we seem to get a more elaborate 
periodization, the belief in an earlier Golden Age or Paradise when the 
world was a better place in which to live and which humans may have had 
to abandon because of their (sinful) behaviour, the opposite of the idea of 
progress and modernization. Again some envisaged a periodization based 
upon changes in the nature of the main tools humans used, whether of 
stone, copper, bronze, or iron, a progressive periodization of the Ages 
of Man that was taken up by European archaeologists in the nineteenth 
century as a scientific model. 

In recent times Europe has appropriated time in a more determined 
manner and applied it to the rest of the world. Of course, world history has 
to have a single chronological frame if it is to be unified. But it has come 
about that the international calculus is basically Christian, as too are the 
major holidays celebrated by world bodies such as the United Nations, 
Christmas and Easter, and that is also the case for the oral cultures of the 
Third World who were not committed to the calculus of one of the major 
religions. Some monopolization is necessary in constructing a universal 
science of, say, astronomy. Globalization entails a measure of universal- 
ity. One cannot work with purely local concepts. But although the study 
of astronomy had its origins elsewhere, changes in the information soci- 
ety and particularly in information technology in the shape of the printed 
book (which, like paper, came from Asia) meant that the developed struc- 
ture of what has been called modern science is western. In this case, as 
in many others, globalization meant westernization. Universalization is 
much more of a problem in the social sciences, in the context of peri- 
odization. The concepts of history and the social sciences, however hard 
scholars may struggle for a Weberian 'objectivity', are more closely bound 
to the world that gave them birth. For example, the terms 'Antiquity' and 

12 Boas 1904:2. 

Who stole what? Time and space 23 

'feudalism' have clearly been defined with a purely European context in 
view, mindful of the particular historical development of that continent. 
Problems arise in thinking about the application of these concepts to 
other times and to other places, when their very real limitations come to 
the fore. 

So one major problem with the accumulation of knowledge has been 
that the very categories employed are largely European, many of them 
first defined in the great spate of intellectual activity that followed after 
the Greeks' return to literacy. It was then that the fields of philosophy 
and of scientific disciplines like zoology were laid out and taken up in 
later Europe. So the history of philosophy, as incorporated in European 
learning systems, is essentially the history of western philosophy since 
the Greeks. In recent years some marginal attention has been given by 
westerners to similar themes in Chinese, Indian, or Arabic thought (that 
is, written thought). 13 However, non-literate societies get less attention, 
even though we find some substantive 'philosophical' issues in formal 
recitations like that of the Bagre of the LoDagaa of northern Ghana. 14 
Philosophy is therefore almost by definition a European subject. As with 
theology and literature, comparative aspects have been brought in rather 
recently as a sop to global interests. In reality comparative history is still 
largely a dream. 

As we have seen, it has been claimed by J. Needham that in the west 
time is linear while in the east it is circular. 13 There is a limited truth in 
this remark for simple, pre-literate societies, who have little knowledge of 
any 'progression' of cultures. Among the LoDagaa, neolithic axes were 
sometimes turned up in the fields, especially after rain storms, dating 
from a period before iron hoes were available. They were looked upon 
locally as 'God's axes' or sent by the rain god. Not that the people had no 
idea of cultural change. They knew the Djanni had preceded them in the 
area and would point to the ruins of their houses. But they had no view of 
long-term change from a society using stone tools to one employing iron 
hoes. In their cultural myth of the Bagre, 16 iron emerged with the 'first 
men', as did most other elements of their culture. Life did not move on in 
the same way, although colonialism and the coming of the Europeans had 
certainly led them to consider cultural change and the word 'progress', 
often associated with education, is in current use; the old is firmly rejected 
in favour of the new. The linear idea of cultural motion dominates. 

13 For example E. Gilson, in La Philosophic auMoyenAge (1997), includes a small section on 
Arab and Jewish philosophy because they impinge directly on Europe (that is, Andalucia) . 
The rest of the world either had no philosophy or no Middle Ages. 

14 Goody 1972b, Goody and Gandah 1980, 2003. 15 Needham 1965. 
16 See Goody 1972b, Goody and Gandah 1980, 2003. 

24 A socio-cultural genealogy 

But linearity of a kind was already present. Human life proceeds in 
a linear fashion and although the months and years are seen to move 
in a cyclical way, that is largely because there is no written schema by 
which to reckon the passing of time. Just as even in western concepts, 
the circularity of the seasons is certainly built in. But cultural change 
takes place in a more obvious way, with each generation of motor car 
being slightly different and 'better' than the previous one. Among the 
LoDagaa, the hoe handle remains the same shape from one generation 
to the next, but change has occurred, and in a realm usually thought of 
as particularly static, 'traditional'. 

Linearity is a constituent of the 'advanced' idea of 'progress'. Some 
have seen this notion as peculiar to the west and so to some extent it is, 
being attributable to the speed of change which has taken place mainly 
in Europe since the Renaissance as well as to the application of what 
J. Needham and others refer to as 'modern science'. I would suggest 
that some such notion is characteristic of all written cultures with their 
introduction of a fixed calendar, the drawing of a line. But this was by no 
means a one-way progress. Most written religions contained the idea of 
a Golden Age, a Paradise or natural garden, from which humanity had 
subsequently had to retreat. Such a notion involved a looking backward 
as well as in some cases a looking forward to a new beginning. Indeed 
even in oral cultures a parallel idea of heaven could be found. 1 ' In the 
past, there was a clear-cut division, only with the coming of a dominant 
secularity after the Enlightenment do we find a world ruled by this idea of 
progression, not so much towards a particular goal as from an earlier state 
of the universe towards something different, even undreamt of, as with 
the aeroplane, a function of scientific endeavour and human ingenuity. 

One of the basic assumptions of much western historiography is that the 
arrow of time overlaps with an equivalent increase in value and desirability 
in the organization of human societies, that is, progress. History is a 
sequence of stages, each driving from the previous one and leading to the 
next, until in Marxism finally climaxing in communism. It doesn't take 
this kind of millenaristic optimism, however, for a eurocentric reading 
of the direction of history - for most historians, the moment of writing 
is in the vicinity of, if not identical with, the final target of mankind's 
development. So, what we define as progress is reflective of values which 
are very specific to our own culture, and which are of relatively recent 
date. We speak of advances in the sciences, economic growth, civilization, 
and the recognition of human rights (democracy, for instance). However, 
there are other standards by which change can be measured - and, to a 

17 Goody 1972. 

Who stole what? Time and space 25 

certain extent, these are present as counter-discourses even in our own 
culture. If we take an environmental yardstick, for instance, our society is 
a catastrophe waiting to happen. If we are talking about spiritual progress 
(the main variety of progress in some societies, even if questionable in 
ours), we could be said to be going through a regressive phase. There is 
little evidence of progression in values on a world plane, despite contrary 
assumptions which dominate the west. 

Here I am especially concerned with broad historical concepts of the 
development of human history and the way the west has tried to impose 
its own trajectory on the course of global events, as well as the misun- 
derstanding to which that has given rise. The whole of world history has 
been conceived as a sequence of stages which are predicated upon events 
that have supposedly taken place only in western Europe. Around 700 
bce the poet Hesiod envisaged the past ages of man as beginning with an 
age of gold and succeeding through ages of silver and bronze to an age of 
heroes, leading to the current age of iron. It is a sequence not too differ- 
ent from that later developed by archaeologists in the eighteenth century, 
running from stone to bronze to iron depending upon the materials from 
which tools were made. 18 But since the Renaissance, historians and schol- 
ars more generally have taken another approach. Beginning with Archaic 
society, the periodization of changes in world history into Antiquity, Feu- 
dalism, then Capitalism, was seen to be virtually unique to Europe. The 
rest of Eurasia ('Asia') pursued a different course; with their despotic 
polities, they constituted 'Asiatic exceptionalism'. Or in more contempo- 
rary terms, they failed to achieve modernization. 'What went wrong?', as 
Bernard Lewis asked of Islam, assuming that only the west got it right. 
But was that the case and for how long? 

What then happened to divide the notion of a common socio-cultural 
development between Europe and Asia, and lead to ideas of 'Asiatic 
exceptionalism', of 'Asiatic despotism', and of a different path for eastern 
and western civilizations? What happened later to distinguish Antiquity 
from the Bronze Age cultures of the eastern Mediterranean? How did the 
history of the world come to be defined by purely western sequences? 

18 Daniel 1943. 

The invention of Antiquity 

Antiquity, 'classical Antiquity', represents for some the beginning of a 
new (basically European) world. The period fits neatly into place in a pro- 
gressive chain of history. For this purpose, Antiquity had to be radically 
distinguished from its predecessors in the Bronze Age, which character- 
ized a number of mainly Asian societies. Secondly, Greece and Rome 
are seen as the foundations of contemporary politics, especially as far as 
democracy is concerned. Thirdly, some features of Antiquity, especially 
economic such as trade and the market, that mark later 'capitalism', get 
down-played, keeping a great distinction between the different phases 
leading to the present. My argument in this section has a triple focus. 
Firstly, I will claim that studying Antique economy (or society) in iso- 
lation is mistaken, as it was part of a much larger network of economic 
exchange and polity centring on the Mediterranean. Secondly, neither 
was it as typologically pure and distinct as many European historians 
would have it; historical accounts had to cut it to the size consigned to 
it in a variety of teleologically driven, eurocentric frameworks. Thirdly, I 
will engage with the debate between 'primitivists' and 'modernists' which 
takes up this question economically, trying to point out the limitations in 
both these perspectives. 

Antiquity is held by some to mark the beginning of the political system 
of the 'polis', of 'democracy' itself, 'freedom' and the rule of law. Eco- 
nomically, it was distinct, based upon slavery, upon redistribution but 
not upon the market and commerce. Regarding the means of communi- 
cation, Grecian with its Indo-European language made the breakthrough 
to the alphabet which we use to the present day. There was also the 
question of art, including architecture. Finally, I discuss the problem of 
whether there were any general differences between the European centres 
of Antiquity and those in the eastern Mediterranean, including Asia and 
Africa that surrounded them. 

The theft of history by western Europe began with the notions of 
Archaic society and Antiquity, proceeding from there in a more or less 
straight line through feudalism and the Renaissance to capitalism. That 


The invention of Antiquity 27 

beginning is understandable because for later Europe the Greek and 
Roman experience represented the very dawn of 'history', with the adop- 
tion of alphabetic writing (before writing all was pre-history, the sphere of 
archaeologists rather than historians). 1 Of course, some written records 
did exist in Europe before Antiquity in the Minoan-Mycenaean civiliza- 
tions of Crete and the mainland. But the script has been deciphered 
only in the last sixty years and the records proved to consist largely of 
administrative lists, not of 'history' or of literature in the usual sense. 
Those fields appeared in any strength in Europe only after the eighth 
century bce with the adoption and adaptation by Greece of the Phoeni- 
cian script, the ancestor of many other alphabets, and one which already 
possessed its BCD (without the vowels). 2 One of the first subjects of 
Greek writing was the war against Persia which led to the distinction 
made in evaluative terms between Europe and Asia, with profound con- 
sequences for our intellectual and political history ever since. 3 To the 
Greeks the Persians were 'barbarian', characterized by tyranny rather 
than democracy. This was of course a purely ethnocentric judgement, 
fuelled by the Greco-Persian war. For example the supposed decline of 
the Persian empire from the reign of Xerxes (485-465 bce) arises from 
the vision centred upon Greece and Athens; it is not borne out by Elamite 
documents from Persepolis, Akkadian from Babylonia nor Aramaic doc- 
uments from Egypt, quite apart from archaeological evidence. 4 In fact 
the Persians were as 'civilized' as the Greeks, especially among their elite. 
And they were the main way in which knowledge coming from literate 
Ancient Near Eastern societies was transmitted to the Greeks. 3 

Linguistically, Europe had become the home of the 'Aryans', the speak- 
ers of Indo-European languages coming from Asia. Western Asia on the 
other hand was the home of peoples speaking Semitic languages, a branch 
of the Afro-Asiatic family that included those spoken by the Jews, the 
Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Copts, the Berbers, and many others in North 
Africa and Asia. It was this division between Aryan and other, embodied 
later on in Nazi doctrines, that in the folk-history of Europe tended to 
encourage the subsequent neglect of the contributions of the east to the 
growth of civilization. 

We know what Antiquity means in a European context, although argu- 
ments have arisen among classical scholars about its beginning and its 
end. 6 But why has the concept not been used in the study of other 

1 Goody and Watt 1963, Finley 1970: 6. 

2 I use the standard dates. Some scholars would put the transmission much earlier. 

3 Said 1995: 56-7. 4 Briant 2005: 14. 

5 Villing, 'Persia and Greece', in Curtis and Tallis 2005: 9. 

6 For a valuable recent comment about the end of Antiquity, see Fowden 2002. 

28 A socio-cultural genealogy 

civilizations, in the Near East, in India or in China? Are there sound 
reasons for this exclusion of the rest of the world and for the beginning of 
'European exceptionalism'? Prehistorians have stressed the largely sim- 
ilar progression of earlier societies in Europe and elsewhere, differently 
timed but basically following a set of parallel stages. That progression con- 
tinued throughout Eurasia up to the Bronze Age. Then a divergence is 
said to have taken place. The Archaic societies of Greece were essentially 
Bronze Age, though they extended into the Iron Age and even into the 
historic period. After the Bronze Age, Europe is said to have experienced 
Antiquity while Asia had to do without. A major problem for histori- 
ography is that while many western historians including major scholars 
like Gibbon have examined the decline and fall of the classical world 
of Greece and Rome and the emergence of feudalism, few if any have 
considered in any depth the theoretical implications of the emergence 
of Antiquity or of Ancient Society as a distinct period. The anthropol- 
ogist, Southall, for example, writes of the Asiatic mode that 'the first 
radical transformation was the Ancient mode of production which devel- 
oped in the Mediterranean, without replacing the Asiatic mode in most 
of Asia and the New World'. 7 But why not? No reasons are given, except 
that the Ancient mode was 'an almost miraculous jump in the question 
of the rights of man (but not of woman)? It was a transition that took 
place in the eastern Mediterranean partly by 'migration into the setting 
of societal collapse', a situation which must have happened frequently 

Many see the later history of Europe as emerging from some vague 
synthesis between Roman and native tribal society, a German social for- 
mation in Marxist terms, and there has long been disagreement among 
Romanists and Germanists as to their respective contributions. But even 
for the earlier period, Antiquity is often seen as the fusion between Bronze 
Age states and 'tribes' of 'Aryan' origin participating in the Doric inva- 
sions, so that it benefited from both regimes, the centralized 'civilized' 
urban cultures and the more rural, pastoral, 'tribes'. 

From the standpoint of the economy and of social organization more 
generally, the concept of a tribe is not very enlightening. While the term 
'tribal' may be a way of indicating certain features of social organization, 
especially mobility and the absence of a bureaucratic state, it does little 
to differentiate the nature of the economy. One finds 'tribes' practising 
hunting and gathering, others simple hoe agriculture, others pastoralism. 
In any case what is clear about the emergence of what we perceive as the 
classical civilization of Antiquity is that it was not constructed directly 

7 Southall 1998: 17,20. 

The invention of Antiquity 29 

on the basis of 'tribal' economies of any of these types. Rather it was 
built on societies like the Mycenaean and the Etruscan that were heavily 
influenced by the many advances in rural as well as in urban life that 
marked the coming of the Bronze Age, not simply in Europe but primar- 
ily in the Near East, the so-called Fertile Crescent, together with parts 
of India and China. During the Bronze Age, about 3000 bce, Eurasia 
saw the development of a number of new 'civilizations', in the technical 
sense of urban cultures based upon an advanced agriculture employing 
the plough, the wheel, and sometimes irrigation. They developed urban 
living and specialist artisanal activity including forms of writing, thus 
beginning a revolution in modes of communication as well as in modes 
of production. These highly stratified societies produced hierarchically 
differentiated cultural forms and a great variety of artisanal activities, in 
the Red River Valley in China, in the Harappan culture of northern India, 
in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, later in other parts of the Fertile Crescent 
of the Near East as well as in Eastern Europe. There was parallel devel- 
opment throughout this vast region and there was some communication. 
Indeed the Urban Revolution affected developments not only in those 
major civilizations but also in the 'tribes' that lived on their periphery 8 
and which are taken to have in part 'fathered' Greek society. 

Childe emphasizes the role played by trade in the classical world, as 
a result of which cultures, ideas, and personnel were widely diffused. 
Slaves of course were traded and were not just labourers; 'they included 
highly educated doctors, scientists as well as artisans and prostitutes . . . 
Oriental and Mediterranean civilizations, having fused, were joined by 
commerce and diplomacy to other civilizations in the east and to the old 
barbarisms of the north and south.' 9 Such exchange took place within as 
well as between societies. 

The 'tribes' on the periphery, those 'barbarians' in the technical sense 
who did not belong to major civilizations, 10 were affected by these major 
developments in the urban societies with which they exchanged prod- 
ucts, helping to transport goods, and which they saw in transit as possible 

Childe 1964: 159, 'Even resistance to imperialism generates a "Bronze Age economy" 
dependent on trade at least for armaments . . .'. 
Childe 1964:248-50. 

The notion of barbarian as a contrast to civilized was central to the views of Greeks (and 
others too), not only about tribal peoples, leading them to devalue other actors. Not 
all Greek writers divided the world into Greeks and barbarians, however. There were 
some who considered all humans as similar but the 'other' did take on 'a largely negative 
characterisation ... in the wake of the Persian wars' (von Staden 1992: 580). Equally 
there are writers who recognize the debt to other ancient civilizations, just as there are 
contemporary scholars who have done the same (the matter is sensitively discussed by 
von Staden [1992]). I am commenting upon a persistent view. 

30 A socio-cultural genealogy 

targets for their greater mobility; raiding the towns and their traffic was 
a way of life for some. This was the situation described by Ibn Khal- 
dun in his fourteenth-century account of the conflict in North Africa 
between nomadic Bedouin and settled Arabs (or the equivalents among 
the Berbers) in which the tribes had greater 'solidarity' (asabiyaa) as com- 
pared to the peoples that were more technologically advanced, 11 a theme 
that was taken up by Emile Durkheim in La Division du Travail under the 
heading of 'solidarity'. 12 Most of the great civilizations had similar rela- 
tionships with neighbouring 'tribes' and suffered from similar incursions, 
the Chinese from the Manchus, the Indians from the Timurids of Central 
Asia, the Near East from the surrounding desert peoples, the Doric in 
Europe. There was nothing unique in this respect about the attacks of 
the Germans and others upon the classical world, except in so far as they 
were a major factor in the destruction of the Roman Empire and in the 
temporary eclipse in western Europe of its extraordinary achievements. 
However the tribes were not simply 'predators'. They were important too, 
as we shall see, for their own sakes as well as for solidarity and notions of 
democracy and freedom, features almost universally associated with the 

What we refer to as Antiquity obviously had its roots in earlier Greece 
and in earlier Rome; that narrative is the one that most classical historians 
pursue. 13 And there is general agreement that Antiquity was built upon 
an earlier collapse of civilization. In 1200 bce 'Greece looked much like 
any near-eastern society.' 14 Just as in western Europe there was later a 
dramatic break with the fall of the Roman empire, so too there appears to 
have been a similar collapse of Minoan-Mycenaean civilization in Greece 
about 1 100 bce. Perhaps that collapse was due to invasion but in any case 
it resulted in the disappearance of the palace culture. The Greek world 
was subsequently marked by 'contracted horizons: no big buildings, no 
multiple graves, no impersonal communication, limited contact with a 
wider world'. 15 

Although there were resemblances to earlier cultures in the area, espe- 
cially in language, there is also the question, intrinsic to European his- 
tory, of what differentiated Ancient Society from the contemporaneous 
or even older societies that followed the Bronze Age, both in the Near 
East and elsewhere. Changes, we have seen, certainly took place in the 
former. Palace cultures disappeared (in the west) . The Iron Age emerged, 
here as elsewhere, bringing a much wider use of metals. But the prob- 
lem is not an absence of important shifts over time. It comes in making 

11 Ibn Khaldun 1967 [1377]. 12 Durkheim 1893. 13 Osborne 1996. 
14 Osborne 1996: 3. 15 Osborne 1996: 32. 

The invention of Antiquity 3 1 

categorical distinctions between Archaic and Greek society (that is, Antiq- 
uity), differentiated from all others, when these differences might be more 
profitably conceived in less radical developmental or evolutionary terms, 
especially if they are primarily of local significance. Archaic society was 
broadly a Bronze Age society, like the rest of its contemporaries; the 
Greeks belonged to the Iron Age. But the periods followed one another 
in the same geographical and commercial sphere, with one merging with 
another. For instance, Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who uncovered the 
palace at Cnossos in Crete, claimed the Minoans were 'free and indepen- 
dent', the first European civilization, 16 in other words setting a precedent 
for the Greeks. Freedom and independence are comparative terms and 
the Minoans were more dependent on others than he reckoned; they were 
in fact linked to the Near East commercially and it was from there that 
supplies of tin and copper came (including from Cyprus) as well as other 
commodities; tin and copper were needed to make bronze. Cultural links 
were also present; there is evidence of relations with Egypt, as is proved 
by the painting in a tomb in the Valley of Kings dated around 1500 bce, 
which indicates the existence of relationships between Europe, Africa, 
and Asia. 

Modes of communication: the alphabet 

One of the results of thinking in terms of the tribal invasion of Greece 
by Aryan speakers has been the neglect of Semitic contributions and too 
much stress being placed upon the Greek contributions to what were 
undoubtedly developments of great importance. For example, in the 
modes of communication the Greeks added vowel signs to the Semitic 
schema and therefore, in the eyes of some scholars, 'invented' the alpha- 
bet. The new alphabet became a most important instrument for com- 
munication and expression. But in fact a great deal could already be 
accomplished with the consonantal alphabet, sufficient for the Jews to 
produce the Old Testament which serves as the basis for Judaism, Chris- 
tianity, and Islam alike. That was already an enormous historical, literary 
as well as a religious achievement. So too were the literatures of Arabic 
and of Indian languages which developed from the Aramaic version of the 
Semitic script, again without vowels. 17 But these achievements were con- 
stantly played down in relation to the Greek, whose position was always 
assessed from the standpoint of the later European dominance of the 
world, that is, ideologically. That is the problem of Hellenocentricism. 18 

16 Evans 1921-35. 17 Goody 1987. 

18 See von Staden 1992 for a comprehensive and sensitive discussion of this point. 

32 A socio-cultural genealogy 

A type of alphabet, one that did not represent vowels but only conso- 
nants, had long been available in Asia, from about 1 500 bce, where it had 
permitted a big extension of literacy among Semitic-speaking peoples, 
Phoenicians, Hebrews, speakers of Aramaic, later of Arabic too. Indeed 
the Old Testament, and then the New, used a script of this kind, the 
contribution of which has often been neglected by classical scholars con- 
centrating upon the Indo-European languages. 19 Moreover, with other 
types of script mankind has performed miracles in terms of accumulating 
and diffusing knowledge, for example using the logographic scripts of the 
Far East. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians, too, produced substantial 
bodies of literature, employing similar scripts, but partly for linguistic rea- 
sons they are seen by Europeans as 'oriental' rather than classical. Indeed 
many of the supposedly unique achievements of alphabetic literacy were 
possible with other forms of writing. The promotion of the alphabet (by 
Lenin for example) as 'the revolution of the East' was the counterpart of 
his promotion of the nation state in opposition to multinational empires, 
since the former supposedly produced the best conditions for the devel- 
opment of capitalism and therefore socialism. It was a very eurocentric 
position. Obviously, Chinese script which communicated above the level 
of a national language and could be used to teach Confucius in every lan- 
guage was a feature of the multinational empire rather than of national 
units, which is why, for cultural-political reasons, the Beijing branch of 
the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Tse-tung rejected the alphabet 
in favour of retaining the characters. 20 

One of the features of the transition from Archaic Greece to Antiq- 
uity was the loss of literacy and of Linear B. The notion of a period 
of illiteracy between the late Bronze Age and the Iron Age in Greece 
has been contested by Bernal, 21 who sees the West Semitic alphabet as 
having been diffused in the Aegean before 1400 bce and as therefore over- 
lapping with Linear B. He suggests that documents must have survived 
from that period but none have yet been discovered; papyrus is subject 
to serious decay in European climates. However, he recognizes that there 
was 'considerable cultural regression' between the twelfth and the eighth 
centuries, after the collapse of the Mycenean palace cultures. 

Gradually a revival took place. But when literacy returned in the ninth 
century, it was not a revival of the Mycenean script but an adapted alpha- 
betic literacy from Phoenicia that assisted in the transmission and in 
my view the composition of the Homeric epics. During the intervening 
period of 'illiteracy' contacts had been maintained with Ionia and above 
all with Phoenicia, and in particular with Cyprus, a half-way house where 

19 Goody 1987: 60ff. 20 Lenin 1962. 21 Bernal 1991: 4. 

The invention of Antiquity 33 

iron-working was of great importance in the new Age of Iron which saw 
the Mediterranean dispersal of the Greeks and Phoenicians with their 
particular alphabets. 

Communications are not only of great social importance but often pro- 
vide us with a model for a kind of development, from the shift between 
(purely) oral and written, from the emergence of logographic, syllabic, 
and alphabetic scripts, from the advent of paper, printing, and the elec- 
tronic media; in this, one new form succeeded another but did not replace 
it, as largely did the changes in means of production. There was a differ- 
ent sort of change. Scholars have emphasized the passage of prehistoric 
or oral societies to literate or historic ones as being of great significance. 
So it was. One mode of communication builds on another; the new does 
not make the earlier form obsolete but modifies it in a variety of ways. 22 
The same process took place with the coming of printing, which has 
been seen as an important 'revolution'. 23 So it was, like writing. But 
speech and handwriting continued to be of fundamental significance for 
mankind. Perhaps 'mentalities' changed, but at least the technologies of 
the intellect did, and there were many continuities, in economic as in 
political history. 

The transition to Antiquity 

Let us turn to the general problem that Finley, a leading exponent of 
Greek achievement, poses regarding the emergence of Antiquity. As 
we have already noted he perceived a unique sequence taking place 
in Europe; the world of Classical Greece emerges from the (common) 
Bronze Age to Archaic and then to Classical Greece. The Archaic did 
away with the palace complexes of earlier times widespread in the Ancient 
Near East, and there emerged quite different political systems notably in 
Athens and in Sparta, which introduced democracy and became more 
individualist into the bargain. 24 The idea that Mesopotamia consisted of 
highly centralized temple-palace regimes has now been rejected as being 
a function of the written recordings. 23 Archaeologists 'have tended, per- 
haps, to overestimate the degree of centralization and power' of states. 26 
There was more heterogeneity than this model implies and there were 
centrifugal as well as centripetal tendencies that manifested themselves 
in various ways. For example, 'within the cities themselves, the state may 
have controlled the production of prestige goods, but did not and could 

22 Goody 1987. 23 Eisenstein 1979. 24 Finley 1970: 140. 

25 For a recent rethinking of the temple-palace civilization of Mesopotamian society, see 
Stein 1994: 13. 

26 Stein 1994: 13. 

34 A socio-cultural genealogy 

not monopolize the specialized manufacture of everyday goods such as 
ceramics'. 27 

Archaic society 'invented freely'. 'The political structure, made up 
of magistrates, councils and, eventually, popular assemblies, was a free 
invention.' 28 They borrowed much from the Near East but whatever they 

they promptly absorbed and converted into something original . . . They borrowed 
the Phoenician alphabet, but there were no Phoenician Homers. The idea of the 
free-standing statue may have come to them from Egypt . . . but it was the Greeks, 
not the Egyptians, who then developed the idea ... In the process they not only 
invented the nude as an art form but, in a very important sense, they 'invented 
art' itself . . . The human self-reliance and self-confidence that permitted and 
fostered such questions, in politics as in art and philosophy, lay at the root of the 
miracle grec. 

They invented a personal element in poetry too, as well as social and 
political criticism, 30 producing a new 'individualism' and seeing 'the 
emergence of rudimentary moral and political concepts'. In Ionia they 
'posed problems and proposed general, rational, "impersonal" answers', 
setting aside myth in favour of the logos or reason/ 1 encouraging 'ratio- 
nal debate'. 32 These are extraordinarily strong claims but not unusual. 
However, many among them cry out for qualification. The political 
'inventions' we have found elsewhere. While Phoenicia had no Homer, 
the Semites did have their Bible. As for 'human self-reliance' and 'self- 
confidence', how does one begin to make a comparative assessment'? 

The notion of 'the invention of art' by the Greeks (even if qualified by 
'in a certain sense') seems as proprietary as that of the economic histo- 
rian, Landes, who writes of 'the invention of invention' by the later Euro- 
peans. Equally, the claims to the introduction of the personal element in 
poetry, to social criticism, to a new individualism, to moral and political 
concepts, to rationality, seem greatly overstated, embodying ethnocentric 
claims of the superiority of the European tradition over all others. Greek 
sculpture should perhaps be considered a special case. It does distin- 
guish Antiquity, for there is nothing quite like it in other cultures. How- 
ever, these other traditions have their own great achievements such as the 
paintings on Egyptian tombs where gods are not portrayed in a realistic, 
anthropomorphic manner as in Greece but in a more phantasmagoric, 
'imaginative' way. Then there are the magnificent products of Assyrian 
sculpture. Ancient Greece was preceded by Cycladic, Mycenaean, and 
Archaemenic cultures, not to speak of the Hittite and Ancient Near East, 
and clearly owes something to all these substantial artistic traditions. 

27 Stein 1994: 15. 28 Finley 1970:103-4. 29 Finley 1970: 145-6. 
30 Finley 1970: 138-9. 31 Finley 1970: 141. 32 Finley 1970: 142. 

The invention of Antiquity 35 

What is remarkable about the European inheritance from Greece as 
far as art is concerned is not so much that it pointed the way forward, but 
that the whole artistic tradition was decisively rejected not only by early 
Christianity, but until quite recently by all three of the major Near East- 
ern religions. Despite Burkhardt's view of the spiritual marriage between 
Greece and Germany, for well over one thousand years Antiquity, at least 
its art forms, were virtually dismissed as achievements of the European 
tradition. There was no question of a progressive movement. Humanism 
and the Renaissance had to reinvent the past; in significant ways Islam 
and, until the nineteenth century, Judaism were virtually aniconic, as 
were early Christianity and later Protestantism. Representation had to be 
brought back again, certainly in the secular sphere. 

Let us try and look at the problem of the contribution of Greece in more 
particularistic terms. The classical world that emerged certainly gained 
some advantage with regard to other civilizations, not only in military 
and technological terms but also in matters of communication, in what I 
have called the technology of the intellect, referring to the development 
of a simplified alphabetic script. In a paper entitled 'The consequences 
of literacy', 33 Watt and I suggested that the invention of the alphabet 
had opened the way to a new realm of intellectual activity that had been 
impeded by earlier forms of writing (which was of course one of the great 
inventions of the Bronze Age) . That is a view that I have come to modify 
in various ways but not altogether to abandon. The Greek adoption of 
the alphabet was linked chronologically to the extraordinary burst of writ- 
ing that took place covering so many different spheres that characterized 
the classical world and formed the basis of much of our understanding 
of that time. If there is any substance in Finley's claim about individ- 
ualism, about new poetic styles, about 'rational debate', about greater 
self-consciousness, about the criticism of myth, this may well be linked 
to the greater reflexivity which extensive literacy can encourage. Thought 
is deepened, more probing, more disciplined perhaps, when your words 
are thrown back at you on the page. The thoughts of others too can be 
given a different form of scrutiny when they are presented in 'visible lan- 
guage'. It was not only the new alphabet but the fact that writing was 
being introduced into a culture that had abandoned literacy but was now 
anxious to catch up. It caught up not only in adopting a new alphabet and 
in adopting different materials (no longer clay tablets), but in expanding 
writing into many artistic and intellectual fields, in making a wider use of 

There were some other ways too in which the classical civilizations of 
Antiquity achieved a certain comparative advantage in particular spheres, 

33 Goody and Watt 1963. 

36 A socio-cultural genealogy 

especially in aspects of building technology which produced the massive 
monuments that still adorn the landscape of Europe and Asia Minor 
today. Magnificent cities were built, in Greece, in wider Europe and in 
Asia and later in Rome. That process continued even after the classical 
period. In the Hellenistic state 'major Greek cities sprang up . . . making it 
henceforward the most densely urbanised region of the Ancient World' 34 . 
'The proliferation of Greek cities in the East was accompanied by an 
upswing of international trade and communal property.' 

Technology and urban life are areas of human activity in which one 
can trace specific advances over the long term in a way that is difficult to 
do with other aspects of human life. In other spheres theories to do with 
the civilization process seem much more difficult to sustain. 33 'Other cul- 
tures' were equally 'civilized' in a very general sense. However, even as 
far as technology was concerned, the Greeks were not the only builders 
of cities, even though their ruins were so impressive for later inhabitants 
of the region. And they benefited like the rest of the Near East from 
the making of cheap metal in the form of iron, which facilitated con- 
struction in many ways. The widespread smelting of iron, from about 
1200 bce, made metal tools much cheaper and at the same time reduced 
the dependence of small producers on imports by the state or by 'great 
households'. Iron ore was available almost everywhere, assisting one 
aspect of the democratic process, not only in Greece. 

The supposed uniqueness of European Antiquity was clearly viewed 
by Finley as intrinsic to the subsequent development of capitalism, just 
as many have claimed for feudalism. Both had to be unique because 
Europe's later development was unique. In Finley's eyes 'the European 
experience since the late Middle Ages in technology, in the economy, 
and in the value systems that accompanied them, was unique in human 
history until the recent export commenced'. 36 That teleological approach 
is shared and justified by other ancient historians. For example, a recent 
expert writes, frankly and recognizing some teleological problems: 

Because ancient Greece and ancient Rome have in the past enjoyed a special 
status in European thought, in a very few moves one finds oneself back with the 
political writings of Aristotle, and the practice of democracy in Athens. Time and 
time again, in pursuing the history of our own society in order to understand 
its present forms, we find ourselves pursuing myths about ancient Greece and 
through them the history of ancient Greece. 3 ' 

However that special status in European thought to which he refers does 
not necessarily indicate uniqueness nor yet ultimate origins. It merely 

34 Anderson 1974a: 47. 35 Elias 1994a. 36 Finley 1973:147. 

37 Osborne 1996: 1-2. 

The invention of Antiquity 37 

shows the mythical attributions of post-Renaissance scholars. That does 
not stop the author from making large claims about the contribution of 
Greece and the west to world history, particularly to its artistic history. 

It is not entirely a European myth that in the classical Greek world we find the 
origins of very many features which are fundamental to our own western heritage. 
Whole modes of thought and expression have their fount and origin in Greece 
between 500 and 300 bc, self-conscious abstract political thought and moral 
philosophy; rhetoric as a study in its own right; tragedy, comedy, parody, and 
history; western naturalistic art and the female nude; democracy as theory and 
practice. 38 

The last sentence makes a very strong claim, even if it is limited to the 
west but the author seems to say that the world itself owes certain modes 
of thought to Ancient Greece, which was 'the fount'; that seems an even 
stronger, and less acceptable, claim. 

However, many of these features were present in embryonic form 
among the Greeks of the pre-classical period. But they were found in 
other societies too. To talk of moral philosophy as peculiar to Greece, for 
example, is to neglect the writings of Chinese philosophers, like Men- 
cius. More importantly perhaps, it is to overlook the embryonic moral 
and philosophical elements in oral works like the Bagre recitations of 
the LoDagaa. 39 It is true that the study of rhetoric as of history may be 
a feature of written societies and follow from the use of writing, as does 
'self-conscious abstract political thought' and other items he lists. But it is 
an error to suppose that an understanding of the powers of formal speech- 
making 40 and of politics, 41 for example, needed inventing by the Greeks. 
They may have treated these features 'more self-consciously' because lit- 
eracy encourages refiexivity, but that does not indicate an earlier void. 

For the classical historian, Osborne, a problem arises because of his 
insistence on the appropriateness of a 'teleological' approach, on looking 
at the ancient world for evidence of 'the conditions of our emergence 
as a civilised society'. 42 Indeed he goes on to suggest that 'In a sense, 
indeed, classical Greece created the modern world.' 43 Just as one could 
say that the modern world 'created Greece'. The two are intertwined. 
What was good about European culture had its roots in Greece; it was 
part of our identity. Burkhardt actually wrote of a 'mystical marriage' 
between Greece and his own country, Germany, so that the ancients had 
to have everything good that marked the moderns. Such claims must 
arouse a measure of scepticism in a critical reader. 

38 Osborne 1996: 2. 39 Goody 1972b. 40 Bloch 1975. 
41 Bayly 2004. 42 Osborne 1996: 3. 43 Osborne 1996: 17. 

38 A socio-cultural genealogy 

The economy 

Much of the uniqueness of Antiquity that was supposed to have set it on 
an independent course was connected with advances in literacy, which 
made the Greeks very explicit about their own achievements and their 
aims. An advantage was attributed to the Greeks in the realm of politics 
as well as in art. But there was one area in which the Greeks were seen 
by some not as looking forward at all, and that was in the economy. 

The influential ancient historian Moses Finley, was very firm on the 
fundamental difference between the 'ancient economy' and that of Bronze 
Age societies. 44 His view owes a great deal to the work of Karl Polyani but 
also goes back to the nineteenth-century controversy that centred on two 
scholars, Karl Bucher and Edward Meyer, 45 but more widely involved 
both Marx and Weber. Bucher saw the European economy developing 
in three stages, the domestic, centring on the oikos, the urban, charac- 
terized by professional specialization and commerce, and the territorial 
or national economy, phases which in turn corresponded to Antiquity, 
the Middle Ages, and the modern. Meyer on the other hand laid great 
stress on the mercantile activity under the Ancient Economy, that is, on 
its 'modern' aspects. The latter approach was consistent with the early 
notion of Weber (later that was modified and became closer to Marx) 
that Roman society was already marked by capitalism, at least by 'politi- 
cal capitalism'. 46 For some authors a general problem behind this trend 
was that, in the words of Garlan, modernizing theories 'often led to an 
apology for the system of capitalist exploitation' by insisting on the exis- 
tence of markets in Antiquity. 47 Finley himself firmly set aside links either 
with the earlier Near East or with capitalism. 

It is not that the Greeks 'invented' the economy as it is claimed they did 
with democracy and the alphabet. Indeed they did not, in Finley's view, 
have a market economy at all, but nevertheless developed a different form 
from those of the Bronze Age which led later to the unique character of 
Europe. But in this view the market itself appeared only with capitalism 
and the bourgeoisie. However, whilst his Marxist inclinations forbid Fin- 
ley to allow capitalist features to seep into the Antique economy, they 
oblige him to give an account which distinguishes it from its neighbours 
and treats it as a preparatory stage for the subsequent phases of European 

In view of its development of capitalism, Finley sees 'European civi- 
lization as having a unique history, which it is legitimate to study as a 

44 Finley 1973. 45 Will 1954. 46 Love 1991: 233. 
47 Cartledge 1983: 5. My translation. 

The invention of Antiquity 39 

distinct subject'. 48 In this schema 'history and prehistory should remain 
distinct subjects of enquiry'. That means excluding from consideration 
'the important, seminal civilizations of the ancient Near East', commonly 
thought of as prehistoric, whereas Greece was historic, although the divi- 
sion has little ultimate rationality in terms either of modes of communi- 
cation or of modes of production; much greater use was made of (alpha- 
betic) literacy for communication and expression in classical societies and 
possibly greater use of slaves in production, but in neither sphere was this 
society unique. According to Finley, it is no argument for inclusion in 
the network of Near Eastern societies to stress the borrowings and the 
economic or cultural connections between the Greco-Roman world and 
the Near Eastern; jumping many cultures he claims that the appearance 
of Wedgwood blue porcelain does not require the inclusion of China as 
an integral part of an analysis of the Industrial Revolution. 

On the contrary, emphasizing these connections is scarcely misleading. 
I would suggest the emulation of the techniques of making porcelain in 
Delft and the Black Country, as in the case of Indian cotton, should be 
considered central to the study of the Industrial Revolution, for it was 
those very processes, transferred from the east, that formed the basis 
of the transformations that took place. Regarding the separation of his- 
tory and pre-history I can see no adequate grounds for such a radical 
dichotomy at that time on the basis of the nature of the evidence con- 
cerning the past, especially if it means a neglect of the important question 
of the transition from Bronze Age cultures. However, Finley also tries to 
distinguish the Ancient Economy on more concrete grounds when he 

The Near Eastern economies were dominated by large palace - or temple - com- 
plexes, who owned the greater part of the arable, and virtually monopolized any- 
thing that can be called "industrial production" as well as foreign trade (which 
includes inter-city trade, not merely trade with foreign parts), and organized the 
economic, military, political, and religious life of the society through a single com- 
plicated, bureaucratic, record-keeping operation for which the word "rationing", 
taken very broadly, is as good a one-word description as I can think of. None of 
this is relevant to the Graeco-Roman world until the conquests of Alexander the 
Great and later the Romans incorporated large Near Eastern territories. 

As a result, he adds, 'there is not a single topic I could discuss with- 
out resorting to disconnected sections'. 49 The Near East has therefore 
to be excluded. The Greco-Roman world was essentially one of 'pri- 
vate ownership' whereas the Near East approximates to the notion of 
Asiatic despotism, that is, if we 'concentrate on the dominant types, 

48 Finley 1973: 27. 49 Finley 1973: 28. 

40 A socio-cultural genealogy 

on the characteristic modes of behaviour'. The Mediterranean was an 
area of rain-fed agriculture (seen as a critical advantage for Europe by 
other Eurocentric writers such as Mann 30 ), specializing in the cultiva- 
tion of olive trees, whereas the river valleys of Egypt and Mesopotamia 
needed a complex social organization to make the irrigation systems work. 
But as Finley recognizes the Greeks under Alexander (d. 323 bce) and 
later on the Romans controlled precisely those irrigated areas and to the 
north of the Mediterranean developed great expertise in water control, 
though not mainly for farming. In any case water was only one element 
in this dichotomy. The notion of Asiatic despotism and collective own- 
ership follows nineteenth-century ideas of the east, criticism of which 
appears in chapter 4 as well as under politics below. So too with the idea 
of dominance, thought of as related to water control. While it is true 
that the river valleys with their fertile soils gave exceptional yields and 
came to be of central importance, Mesopotamia included many rain- 
fed areas, just as the production of olives was especially important in 
North Africa, around Carthage for example. The temple complexes Fin- 
ley mentions were not everywhere present in the Ancient Near East and 
indeed they also appeared in classical society. He himself notes 'the great 
temple-complex at Delos' 51 with its detailed financial records. None of 
the economies in the area conformed to a pure type, and there were 
many similarities between the economic practices of the different soci- 
eties - enough to discredit any account which concentrates on Greek 
uniqueness alone. 

Nevertheless in Finley's eyes, and his work is followed by many in 
the present day, the emergence of Antiquity has to be seen in terms 
of a specific historical process that took place in Greece and nowhere 
else. The collapse of the civilization of the Bronze Age (not altogether a 
unique occurrence) was followed by the Dark Age of the Homeric poems 
(which some have seen as Mycenaean), the emergence of Archaic Greece 
with its new political institutions and finally the coming of the classical 

It is, however, not only the nature of the economy but whether such 
an institution existed at all that was queried. In a recent review of the 
general discussion, Cartledge follows Finley (and Hasbroek too) in see- 
ing the polis as 'unique in history' (what is not?) and arguing that '"the 
economy" was not in fact, and therefore was not conceptualised as, a 
differentiated, quasi-autonomous sphere of social activity in archaic and 
classical Greece', that it 'belongs to a class of pre-capitalist economic 
formations in which the distribution and exchange of commodities takes 

50 Mann 1986: 185. 51 Finley 1973: 186. 

The invention of Antiquity 41 

quite different forms from those current in the modern world, and are, 
therefore, pre-economic, most relevantly because of the absence of a 
system of interconnected price-fixing markets'. 32 This is a wider, more 
abstract difference that does not distinguish Antiquity from that of Bronze 
Age societies. Here the inspiration is again Karl Polanyi. 33 In his work 
on Trade and Markets in the Early Empires he saw three general patterns 
of integration, namely reciprocity, redistribution, and market exchange. 
These different patterns were associated more or less uniquely with spe- 
cific institutional frameworks. As we have seen, earlier nineteenth-century 
notions of the Greek economy in Archaic times were dominated by the 
idea of control by the oikosf^ market transactions were thought by some 
authors to have appeared only later. With the advent of Polanyi's powerful 
voice, which came to dominate classical (but not Near Eastern) studies, 
shifts in the economy were laid out on a more general theoretical frame, 
early society being marked by reciprocity and redistribution rather than 
by trade. Polanyi did admit to some mixture but the trend of his argu- 
ment moved in favour of categorically different types of 'economy', one 
pattern excluding the other. Market transfers could emerge only in cap- 
italist societies. But unless one defines the market in a very narrow way, 
they certainly existed much more widely; even with its largely pre-Bronze 
Age economies, Africa has long had substantive markets for every village, 
substantive weekly affairs which operated on broadly market principles, 
which is what Polanyi meant. That is not simply a personal view but 
one held by most historians and by most anthropologists in the field. 
Partly this discussion depends upon a difference being made between 
substantive markets (a market place), and an abstract principle of market 
exchange. My own argument is that one does not have one without the 
other. Polanyi insists on what he calls the embeddedness of the Greek and 
other pre-capitalist economies, that is, on its undifferentiated character 
in relation to the social system. But as many commentators have noted, 
he does this only by ignoring the market elements in these economies. 
Oppenheim, who had much sympathy for Polanyi's approach, already 
criticized this omission for Mesopotamia. Many critics have done the 
same for Greece itself, although others, like Hopkins, recognizing some 
weaknesses, have defended the idea of categorical differences. After exam- 
ining the Mesopotamian case and comparing it with recent Mesoamerica, 
Gledhill and Larsen suggest that, in relation both to Polanyi and Marx, 
we need to take a more dynamic, less static, view of the economy: 'it 
may be more rewarding theoretically to focus on the processes that lead 
to cycles of re-centralization after the "feudalizing" episodes to which all 

52 Cartledge 1983: 5-6. 53 Polanyi 1957. 54 Will 1954. 

42 A socio-cultural genealogy 

ancient empires are subject than to focus on essentially static questions 
that are concerned simply with the institutionalization of the economic 
process under phases of greater political continuity. A long-term perspec- 
tive clearly suggests that ancient empires are more dynamic and complex 
in their evolutionary trajectories than is often supposed. '" Traders were 
important both to the government and to themselves in early urban soci- 
eties, such as Mesopotamia and Central America. Akkadian kings inter- 
vened on behalf of merchants venturing abroad, while among the Aztecs 
refusal to trade served as a pretext for an attack. 36 

The problem is that these economic categories tend to impose exclusiv- 
ity in relation to each other. Taking a Polanyi view that the ancient econ- 
omy was dominated by redistribution (and in this sense was non-modern) 
leads to an over-riding tendency to downplay anything that resembles a 
market transaction. That is what happens in Finley's study of the Ancient 
Economy in which his effort in this direction, like Polanyi's, was moti- 
vated by a dislike of the market. It was part and parcel of their socialist 
ideologies. The alternative view of Polanyi, then, which once held con- 
siderable sway, no longer has much credence. While Cartledge comes 
down strongly on Polanyi's side, he recognizes that trade was important, 
if not in pottery, at least in metals (as it had to be in the age of bronze, 
less so with the more universal iron), but claims that we need to acknowl- 
edge Hasbroek's distinction between an import interest and a commercial 
interest. Are these distinctions in fact exclusive? As for the generality of 
earlier societies, we have no evidence, quite the contrary, that Neolithic 
societies excluded market trade and commerce. Indeed in recent soci- 
eties of that type the exchange of goods and services, not necessarily for 
'money', has been of major significance. 37 While it is possible to envisage 
substantial markets (market places) that do not operate in the same way 
as contemporary ones, it is difficult to see them as altogether insulated 
from the pressures of the factors of supply and demand. Indeed, when 
working in this type of 'neolithic' situation, I experienced a wholesale 
change in the value of shell money (cowries) in the early 1980s, when 
this form of currency became more and more difficult to obtain; supply 
and demand certainly played a part. Despite attempts of both adminis- 
trations (in Ghana and in Upper Volta) to substitute their own form of 
currency, cowries continued to be important for cross-border transac- 
tions as well as for some ritual activities. But as they became scarcer and 
scarcer their value as 'modern' currency went up and up. In my view, the 
attempt completely to separate off market places and market principles 

55 Gledhill and Larsen 1982: 214. 56 Adams 1966: 164. 

57 See for example Coquery-Vidrovich 1978 on the 'African mode of production'. 

The invention of Antiquity 43 

(supply and demand) from other transactional modes is doomed to 

The nature of the early economy and the role of commerce also dom- 
inates a recent important collection of essays on trade in Antiquity that 
turns on Finley's work. 38 One of the authors in this collection, Snod- 
grass, shows the use of heavy freight for importing iron ore and marble 59 
in Archaic Greece, but he adopts a narrow definition of 'trade' as 'the 
purchase and movement of goods without knowledge or identification 
of further purchaser'. 60 So most shipments of this period could not be 
classified as trade because one knew the eventual client. He suggests that 
a similar situation may have existed even for the Phoenicians who were 
renowned as the great traders of the Mediterranean. 61 But even if this 
was the case, his definition is far from the only or even the common- 
sense notion of trade and seems to have been inspired by a desire to 
make Greece different and more 'primitive' in a Polanyi-type way. 

The alternative to this assumption is not the idea that such commercial 
transactions were identical with those in the modern world. As Hopkins, 
following Snodgrass, rightly insists, goods can be exchanged in different 
ways. 62 But a commercial aspect is normally present, as one sees from 
Greek trading arrangements and from the recognition that in the final 
stage in the process of creating an archaic statue the 'client pays artist's 
and assistant's maintenance for a period of work' as well as for the costs 
of the marble and its transport. 63 Payment is made in various ways. Again 
we do not insist that these transactions are identical with modern ones 
(though in this case they are close to those of Michelangelo at the Car- 
rara quarries during the Renaissance), but they are at least comparable 
and should be treated as belonging to the same general economic grid. 
Although some may see Greek commerce as displaying a fundamental 
distinction between an import interest and a 'commercial' one, others 
might well perceive the categories as non-exclusive. Although Hopkins 
considers Finley's model of the ancient economy as being 'by far the best 
available', he then goes on to propose 'an elaboration' in the shape of 
seven clauses 'to accommodate modest economic growth and decline'. 
These suggestions seem radically to modify any Polanyi-type view of the 
ancient economy such as that espoused by Finley; although he declares 
the Finley model to be 'sufficiently flexible to incorporate this modest 
dynamic', 64 it might appear to others that this acknowledgement was 

58 Garnsey, Hopkins, and Whittaker 1983. 59 Snodgrass 1983: 16ff. 

60 Snodgrass 1983: 26. 

61 He claims (dubiously) that they could so easily shift to agriculture. 

62 Hopkins 1983: x. 63 Snodgrass 1983: 20. 64 Hopkins 1983: xxi. 

44 A socio-cultural genealogy 

rather due to the physical presence at the discussion of this 'charismatic 
and influential' scholar and that in fact Hopkins pointed clearly to the 
problems with the 'primitivist' position, without at the same time adopt- 
ing a 'modernist' one. 

Finley's view, then, was not universally accepted by classical scholars. 
Tandy saw new trade activity and population growth in the eighth cen- 
tury bce as being critical to the development of Greece, especially in the 
establishment of colonies overseas, with the traders being mostly aristoi 
('best men') . That activity in turn led to the development of the polis, 
to 'the collapse of redistributive formations' 63 and to the growth of what 
he calls 'the limited market system, which proved to be the machine that 
generated the eventual consequences of the economic and social shift: 
the beginning of private property, land alienations, debt, and the polis'. 66 
For him this represents the beginning of the capitalist world, a conclusion 
that puts him firmly in the 'modernist' rather than the 'primitivist' camp; 
later on the mercantile economy got firmly established. In this discussion, 
however, Tandy simply pushes the 'primitivism' of the oikos further back 
to pre-Archaic times where the absence of markets still remains ques- 
tionable, with the implication that this type of economy, one capable of 
ultimately leading to capitalism, remains a European prerogative. 

Despite the dispute among ancient historians between the 'modernists' 
and the 'primitivists', despite the use of Polanyi's categories of exchange 
transactions and of the claims of substantivists, their idea of 'primitive' 
economies (and society generally) was ill-informed. These ideas make 
a categorical distinction either between the ancient economy and the 
preceding ones (as in the work of Tandy) or alternatively between the 
ancient world and subsequent economies, in particular 'capitalist' ones, 
as in the work of Finley. There are two problems here. Firstly, earlier 
societies differ very much among themselves, as between the urban com- 
munities of the Bronze Age and the hunting and gathering societies of 
the K'ung bushmen. To see these all as 'primitive' in an undifferenti- 
ated way is a very simple-minded approach. An example of the gathering 
together of all pre-literate cultures under the one rubric is in Tandy's 
attempt at comparison of these 'simple' societies with Dark Age Greece. 
He sees the terms 'small-scale' and 'pre-industrial' as euphemisms for 
'primitive', employed in order to avoid upsetting those scholars who find 
comparisons between archaic Greece and the K'ung San of the Kalahari 
offensive. Regardless of terminology, the fact remains that he draws close 
analogies between eighth-century Greek society and non- Western 'prim- 
itive' communities; until the organization of the polis, for him, the early 

65 Tandy 1997: 4. 66 Tandy 1997: 230. 

The invention of Antiquity 45 

Greeks were 'primitive' in this sense and not what we call 'western'. 67 
The comparison is not so much offensive as inadequate; there may well 
be non-western societies that can be compared with Archaic Greece but 
the latter is certainly much closer to 'modern' society than the Bush- 
men of the Kalahari - who had never experienced the urban revolution 
of the Bronze Age. Lumping together such heterogeneous societies as 
Bushmen, 'primitives', and Archaic Greece may be consistent with ide- 
ologically informed projects as those of Finley and others, but receives 
little support from the kind of data available to anthropologists. 

Secondly, while the emphasis on different types of exchange varies in 
particular contexts, it is a fundamental error not to recognize the possi- 
bility that reciprocity (as in contemporary families) can exist side by side 
with market transactions. The study of the latter in Africa, for example, 68 
does not imply that the political economy is 'capitalist' in any nineteenth- 
century sense, only that substantive markets are very common both for 
short-distance and for long-distance trade. The market developed from 
well before Greece until the advent of industrial capitalism. Weber saw 
the growth of latifundia with its surplus production as giving birth to 
'agrarian capitalism'. 69 In this he followed Mommsen, but is criticized 
by Marx who objects to the very idea of capitalism in relation to ancient 
society. 70 Marx uses the term for a specific mode of production, to which 
the notion of the factory system was intrinsic. Clearly that system only 
emerged as an important feature in later times; however, fundamental 
'capitalist' features already occur much earlier. 

It should be added that both Finley (in a groundbreaking article on 
marriage in Homeric Greece) and Tandy make use of anthropological 
comparisons, but they tend to do so, particularly Tandy, as we have 
seen, in an a-historical, a-sociological way, comparing Antiquity to an 
undifferentiated 'primitive' society. That approach is encouraged by the 
modernist-primitivist controversy, as well as by the work of Marx who 
paid little attention to pre-capitalist formations, except in Formen (1964), 
by that of Weber, who saw traditional societies as the residual case, the 
left-over from the analysis of more complex systems (1968), and by 
Polanyi who treated them as the inverse of market societies. As we see 
from the title of Polanyi's essay on 'our obsolete market mentality,' 71 these 
positions are often highly ideological, introducing a particular attitude 
regarding modern society and the ubiquity of its market activities. But 
such activities are not in themselves to be associated only with the mod- 
ern world. We do not intend to take up the position of the 'modernizing' 

67 Tandy 1997: 8. 68 Bohannan and Dalton 1962. 69 Love 1991: 18ff. 
70 Marx, Capital, 1976, vol. I, 271. 71 Polanyi 1947. 

46 A socio-cultural genealogy 

historians of the classical world. The contemporary western economy is 
certainly very different. But that does not mean that there are no ele- 
ments in common, such as trade and markets, even if these have very 
differing dimensions. Not to recognize the presence of market activities 
in the ancient world is to blindfold oneself. 72 

As we have seen there can be little doubt that the position of many 
scholars on this subject derives from an ideological view of markets and 
an opposition to their taking over increasing areas of human life, as they 
have constantly done, undoubtedly with some detrimental effects. But the 
attempt to characterize societies either in Antiquity' 3 or the Ancient Near 
East' 4 as non-market is as Utopian and unrealistic as those who perceived 
a 'primitive communism' and absence of 'private property' in Neolithic 
or in hunting and gathering societies. These societies were more collective 
than later ones in certain respects; but they were also more individualised 
in others.' 3 

The question of markets is obviously related to the position of mer- 
chants and of ports (emporia) which has been discussed at length by 
many authors. Mosse, for example, concludes that the former were men 
of 'modest origins' with few connections to the life of the city. The 'world 
of the emporium' was marginal to Athens. 'Commerce belonged to the 
private domain.' 76 However merchants interacted with the rest of the 
community, for example, if they needed to borrow money from other cit- 
izens in order to conduct their commercial activity, and for this purpose 
the institution of the maritime loan was available, 'the basic mechanism' 
of which 'survived through Hellenistic, Roman, medieval, and modern 
times until well into the nineteenth century'," testifying to the conti- 
nuity of trade, trading practices and 'emporia' over two thousand years. 
Indeed the institutions existed yet earlier and in other civilizations, wher- 
ever there was elaborate trade and towns, casting yet more doubt upon 
the approach of Polanyi, Finley, and others. Not that differences in trad- 
ing systems were absent, but there were also similarities that are very 
significant for the understanding of cultural history. So Polanyi's claim 
that 'merchants never existed in Mesopotamia simply does not stand up 
to closer scrutiny' according to Gledhill and Larsen.' 8 Equally the claim 
that Ancient Greece did not have an economy' 9 should perhaps be treated 
in the same way in view of the work of Tandy 80 on the power of the market 

72 They are constantly stressed by the Marxist prehistorian, Gordon Childe (eg. 1964: 190, 
where he sees 'an international body of merchants' responsible for the diffusion of the 
alphabet) . 

73 Finley 1973. 74 Polanyi 1957. 75 Goody 1996a. 76 Mosse 1983: 56. 
77 Millett 1983: 37. 78 Gledhill and Larsen 1952: 203. 79 Finley 1973. 

80 Tandy 1997. 

The invention of Antiquity 47 

in early Greece, of Millett 81 on lending and borrowing in ancient Athens 
and of Cohen 82 on Athenian banking. 

Polanyi did however raise quite explicitly the important question 
to which we have referred of the differences between Greece and 
Mesopotamia, between Antiquity and the Bronze Age societies of the 
Near East. 83 At one level the problem is straightforward. Greece belongs 
not to the Bronze but to the Iron Age, with abundant supplies of that 
cheaper metal, making tools and arms much more widely available. But 
Polanyi is referring to his categories of exchange - reciprocity, etc. Despite 
noting what he called the broadly distributional basis of those earlier soci- 
eties, he also saw other transactional modes as of great economic signif- 
icance. Commercial activities emerged but in Mesopotamia they were 
interpreted as administered trade, carried out by means of equivalences 
(fixed prices), special-purpose money, and ports of trade - but no mar- 
kets, an opinion shared by Finley, who, as we have seen, talks about the 
monopoly exercised by great palatial, or temple, complexes. As Gled- 
hill and Larsen, the latter an important scholar of the Mesopotamian 
economy, point out, this statement is quite inadequate; 84 even where no 
market places existed, markets certainly did. Although Polanyi claimed 
there was no word for that institution, at least three are found. More- 
over exchange was not confined to 'administered trade'; merchants often 
acted on their own account and the better-off used their gains to pur- 
chase houses. The two authors write of the private archives of Kanesh in 
Anatolia consisting of 'letters, contracts, accounts, bills of lading, legal 
texts, verdicts issued by various authorities, notes and memoranda'. 85 
They provide evidence of partnership contracts (commendd) of both the 
familial and the non-familial kinds, of trading risks (which the contracts 
were intended to spread), and of the profit and the loss. To argue in this 
way is not, as they insist, quoting Marx, to 'smudge over all historical 
differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society', 86 but to 
recognize continuity as well as discontinuity. 

One of these continuities, I have suggested, lies in the sphere of trade, 
whose importance and diversity had been emphasized for Bronze Age 
societies by the prehistorian Gordon Childe. When urban civilization 
developed in Mesopotamia, the fertile flood plain gave abundant return 
to farmers but did not provide many basic materials, including wood, 
stone, and metals. All these materials had to be imported, largely along 
the major rivers. For transport had been revolutionized, 'metallurgy, the 

81 Millett 1991. 82 E. E. Cohen 1992. 83 Polanyi 1957: 59. 

84 Gledhill and Larsen 1982: 203. 85 Gledhill and Larsen 1982: 209. 

86 Marx 1973: 105; Gledhill and Larsen 1982: 24. 

48 A socio-cultural genealogy 

wheel, the pack-ass and sailing ships provided the foundation of a new 
economy'. 87 Trade therefore became increasingly important, leading to 
the establishment of merchant colonies as at Kanesh in the second millen- 
nium. It became 'a more potent agency in the diffusion of culture than it 
is today. Free craftsman might travel with the caravans seeking a market 
for their skill, while slaves would form part of the merchandise. These, 
together with the whole caravan or ship's company, must be accommo- 
dated in the home city. Foreigners in a strange land would demand the 
comforts of their own religion ... If cults were thus transmitted [an 
example is given of an Indian cult being celebrated in Akkad], useful arts 
and crafts could be diffused just as easily. Trade promoted the pooling of 
human experience.' 88 

The problem with Polanyi's position, and that of many of his followers, 
is that it adopts a categorical, holistic rather than a historical approach 
to economic activities, seeing them either as redistributive or as market, 
whereas in practice no such exclusive opposition exists. Different prac- 
tices are present at the same time in different social contexts, for example, 
reciprocity in the family, the market outside, redistribution by the state. 
Of course there are varying emphases on these modes of exchange that 
relate partly to differences in the modes of production; at least at the 
level of the means of production one can point to substantial differences 
over time, as for example, between hoe and plough cultivation. But that 
change does not introduce nor eliminate markets. We need a much more 
nuanced treatment of continuity and discontinuity, of 'modernism' and 
'primitivism'. What we need in fact is to consider the problem of exchange 
transactions in terms of a grid, explicit or implicit, so that we can assess 
the range of possibilities (in columns) against specific societies or modes 
of production (in rows) . That approach would be subtler than the usual 
historical one of dealing in categories, often exclusive. In this way we 
could test the hypothesis of Greek uniqueness in a more satisfactory 


A parallel definition to that of the economy, similarly narrow, is often used 
for politics, with the result that certain general features are totally appro- 
priated for Ancient Greece. In this context politics is seen as 'the policy 
or policies pursued by states, rather than the processes that lie behind 
their adoption', 89 a restricted view that clearly excludes non-state soci- 
eties as well as an enormous range of activity that many would recognize 

87 Childe 1964: 97. 88 Childe 1964: 105-6. 89 Cartledge 1983: 14. 

The invention of Antiquity 49 

as political. 'Primitive democracy', often a feature of small-scale societies, 
is given no room for consideration. 

As a consequence the study of politics gives rise to a set of problems 
parallel to those of the economy. For example, Finley rejects the pos- 
sibility of Marx's use of class in Antiquity (since there is no market) 
and sees both classes and markets as emerging only much later (with 
'capitalism') . What he finds on the other hand are status-groups of the 
Weberian kind (characterized by 'styles of life', rather than the economic 
classes seen by Marx) . Yet he is not altogether consistent, for at one point 
he writes of the emergence of a 'middle class of relatively prosperous, 
but non-aristocratic, farmers with a sprinkling of merchants, shippers 
and craftsmen' 90 around 650 bce when they made their appearance as 
the subjects of lyric poetry. This group constituted 'the most important 
military innovation in all Greek history' being organized in a phalanx 
of heavily armed infantrymen, called hoplites, who provided their own 
arms and armour. The 'phalanx for the first time gave the communi- 
ties of more substantial means an important military function'. He also 
attributes the origin ('for the first time') of other enduring features of 
modern political life to Ancient Greece, especially democracy and free- 
dom. Indeed some authors attribute politics itself to that source and a 
recent classical scholar has boldly entitled his book The Greek Discovery of 
Politics. 91 And in a recent article Zizek argues that what he and others call 
'politics proper' appeared for the first time in Ancient Greece when 'the 
members of the demos (those with a firmly determined place in the hier- 
archical social edifice) presented themselves as the representatives, the 
stand-ins, for the whole of society, for true universality.' 92 Politics here 
appears to refer to democracy alone but it is also used to apply to any 
activity at a governmental level as well as the manipulation of authority 
at less inclusive levels ('parish-pump polities') and of systems that have 
no constituted authority ('acephalous'). 

In this sphere as in others, the Greek contributions to subsequent socio- 
economic developments were highly important for Europe and hence for 
the world. But to confine political activities (or their discovery) to Greece 
in such general terms or to exclude economic action means using those 
concepts in highly specific ways. One possible restriction of the sphere 
of the political is to claim that it does not exist as such unless it is sepa- 
rated institutionally and not embodied in society, as Polanyi does for the 
economy. However, the fact that there is a process of social evolution the 
result of which is the growth of complexity leading to the partial 'disem- 
bodiment' of activities and their embodiment in substantive institutions 

90 Finley 1970: 101. 91 Meier 1990. 92 Zizek 2001. 

50 A socio-cultural genealogy 

does not mean that one cannot profitably use the category of economics, 
politics, religion, or kinship before that takes place. Indeed anthropolo- 
gists have always proceeded on the basis that one can, and that is the case 
with the very notion of a social system in the work of Talcott Parsons and 
many other sociologists. The approach of some ancient historians to this 
question creates an unnecessary conceptual gap between scholars dealing 
in different historical periods and types of society. 

There are three aspects of the politics of the classical tradition that 
are seen as different from other, contemporary societies and as being 
transmitted to western Europe: democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. 
Democracy is assumed to be a characteristic of the Greeks and opposed 
to the 'despotism' or 'tyranny' of their Asiatic neighbours. That suppo- 
sition is invoked by our contemporary politicians as representing a long- 
standing characteristic of the west in contrast to 'barbarian regimes' in 
other parts of the world. The modern aspect of that question I exam- 
ine more fully in a later section (chapter ) - here I will concentrate on 
the ancient world. In his discussion of democracy, Finley recognizes the 
possibility that 'there were prior examples of democracy, so-called tribal 
democracies, for instance, or the democracies in early Mesopotamia that 
some Assyriologists believe they can trace'. 93 But whatever the facts, 
he observed, their impact on history, on later societies, was small. 'The 
Greeks, and only the Greeks, discovered democracy in that sense, pre- 
cisely as Christopher Columbus, not some Viking seaman, discovered 
America.' 'It was Greek writing provoked by the Athenian experience 
that the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries read . . .' That was obviously 
the case, but it represents a totally European and literary appropriation 
of history, of the 'discovery' of democracy. If we suppose, with Ibn Khal- 
dun for example, that tribal democracies existed elsewhere, while they 
may not have provided a model for nineteenth-century Europeans, they 
certainly did so for other peoples. The Greeks, of course, invented the 
word 'democracy', possibly were the first to give the term a written shape 
for others to read, but they did not invent the practice of democracy. 
Representation in one form or other has been a feature of the politics and 
struggles of many peoples. 

One of the 'tribal' peoples with whom I worked, the LoDagaa, consti- 
tuted a non-centralized, acephalous group of the kind so clearly described 
by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard in African Political Systems, 91 societies in 
which there was minimal delegation (or imposition) of authority and 
no institution of chiefship of the kind that marked their neighbours in 
northern Ghana, the Gonja. Such groups relished the absence of political 

93 Finley 1985: 14. 94 Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940. 

The invention of Antiquity 5 1 

domination, their freedom, even though they had no specific word with 
which to describe it. They regarded themselves as being quite free in the 
same sense as Robin Hood and his band were free. 

The presence of such polities was particularly marked in regions such 
as Africa that practised simple hoe agriculture with shifting cultivation. 
But 'republican' groups of this kind are reported even in the context of 
more complex (Bronze Age) agricultural systems, often in hill areas less 
easy for any central government to control. For example, Oppenheim 93 
reports them for Mesopotamia, and Thapar 96 for India. In China a similar 
kind of polity, closer to the Robin Hood type of Primitive Rebels or of 
Bandits, 97 existed on the 'water margins'. In North Africa I have referred 
to the work of the great historian, Ibn Khaldun, on the desert tribes. 
In Europe we find groups of this kind in some hill areas which escaped 
the clutches of states, as with the Scottish and Albanian clans. But even 
more on the margins is the organization of pirate ships which was often 
based on 'democratic' principles, as if having escaped the authority of 
states the communities chose to operate a more cooperative system, of 
a kind similar to that envisaged in some North American colonies. So, 
words apart, there is no sense in which the Greeks can be said to have 
'discovered individual freedom' or democracy. Moreover, the contrast 
with the Ancient Near East smacks too strongly of the disputed idea of 
Asiatic or other despotisms which has so long characterized European 
thinking about oriental cultures. 

Even strong central governments are rarely left to rule without taking 
into account 'the people'. Sometimes this produced violent interruptions. 
Protest, resistance, 'freedom' movements in various parts of the world, 
arose independently of any stimulus from Ancient Greece. It cannot be 
supposed that the popular uprisings that marked the state of affairs in 
post-war Iraq in 2004, at least among the Sunnis, had anything to do 
with that inheritance. The same was true of earlier movements in India 
or China. Neither their impetus nor their origin lay in Greece or Europe, 

95 Oppenheim 1964. 

96 Thapar 1 966. In a more recent book (2000), Thapar presents an overview of early India 
and briefly discusses 'tribal' society in a developmental framework as she had previously 
done in an essay entitled 'From lineage to state', where there is the evolution from one 
to the other. While this is a perfectly valid framework, it sets aside the problem that not 
only do lineages persist within states, but 'tribal' societies continue to exist side by side 
with states. She therefore overlooks the question of the 'articulation' of different political 
systems, a situation that offers alternative models to the inhabitants (as is the situation 
in northern Ghana). I do not mean to imply that one can transfer the representative 
procedures of 'tribal' societies to more complex systems but wish to point out that 
not only do such alternatives co-exist but that they may stimulate what I regard as a 
widespread human desire for representation. 

97 Hobsbawm 1959, 1972. 

52 A socio-cultural genealogy 

though their modern manifestations may sometimes do. They are related 
to the permanent problem of the delegation or imposition of power in 
centralized polities and consequently to 'the frailty of authority' that often 
marks them. 

The effect of the classical world on later European or global history is 
not straightforward. The west may look upon Athenian democracy as a 
model but that was not the only type of regime that existed in Greece. 
'Tyranny' was also present. Neither tyranny nor democracy had the same 
values placed upon them as at present. Indeed Finley sees tyranny as often 
being introduced by popular demand, breaking the aristocratic monopoly 
of the demos. 'The paradox is that, standing above the law and above the 
constitution, the tyrants in the end strengthened the polls and its insti- 
tutions and helped raise the demos, the people as a whole, to a level of 
political self-consciousness which then led, in some states, to government 
by the demos, democracy.' 98 Tyranny therefore is said to prepare the way 
for democracy (much as slavery does for freedom), certainly an optimistic 
view of the world. In any case there was an oscillation between the two, not 
a direct development, since many in Antiquity thought democracy a bad 
thing. In Europe too democracy did not definitely take on an unambigu- 
ously positive value until the nineteenth century" and the development 
of centralized governments whose rapidly increasing bureaucracies and 
military required continual financial contributions, by taxation, from the 
masses. Even then some political thinkers still advocated a stronger rule 
of the 'best', the 'few', the 'elite'. 

How different in fact was Greece from its neighbours? Difference cer- 
tainly existed but it is always a question of assessing its extent. Most clas- 
sicists make extravagant claims for its unique contribution. Davis writes 
of our inheritance of democracy, of the 'Athenian revolution', of how 
the Greeks 'rightly thought that compared with any others they were 
notably civilized'. 100 But other societies are disregarded. Castoriadis too 
sees Greece as 'creating democracy'. He even writes that 'the interest 
in the other starts with the Greeks. This interest is but another side of 
the critical examination and interrogation of their own institutions.' 101 
One cannot doubt that the Greeks did think a great deal about their 
institutions; this was an aspect of their extensive use of literacy provid- 
ing increased refiexivity. 102 But to regard them as initiating an interest 
in the other is to lose track of the nature of human society itself. Inter- 
est in the other has been a constant of man's behaviour, though it could 

98 Finley 1970: 107. " Finley 1985: 19. 10 ° Davies 1978: 23, 64. 
101 Castoriadas 1991: 268. 102 Goody and Watt 1963. 

The invention of Antiquity 53 

and did take many different forms. To regard this feature as an aspect of 
the 'modernity' of Athens is once again to misunderstand the nature of 
human society as well as the concept of the modern. 

The notion of their invention of democracy is equally suspect. The idea 
that much simpler societies already displayed democratic features was 
often expressed in European thought. There was of course the Hobbe- 
sian view of early societies as engaged in a war of all against all which could 
be constrained only by introducing an authoritarian leader in the shape 
of a chief, an early form of state organization. But there was also the view 
of philosophers like Kropotkin and sociologists like Durkheim who saw 
early societies as characterized by 'mutual aid' or by the mechanical sol- 
idarity of segmental systems. Both these authors influenced the thinking 
of the anthropologist Radcliffe Brown (known to his colleagues in Trinity 
College, Cambridge, as 'anarchy Brown') who developed the notion of 
segmentary politics in stateless lineage societies that dominated the dis- 
cussion of African political systems to which I have referred. Segmentary 
systems practised a mixture of direct and representative democracy as well 
as reciprocity of a positive and negative kind, together with 'distributive 
justice'. 103 

One major way in which the choice of the Athenian people was deter- 
mined was by means of election (here, by written token) . However, this 
procedure was not confined to Greece. In Davis's discussion of the begin- 
nings of democracy, Carthage is mentioned in his survey only in connec- 
tion with wars, never for its political system. Phoenicia gets treated in 
an even more summary fashion. But the Phoenician colony of Carthage 
voted annually for their magistrates, or sufes, who appear to have been 
the supreme authority in the time of Hannibal. Some have seen the term 
as synonymous with basileus or rex, others consider the institution to be 
derived from Rome, but Semitic experts point to the two suffetes con- 
jointly exercising authority in Tyre in the fifth century. 104 'Some have 
proposed linking the regular institution of the annual collegial suffetate 
in Carthage with a "democratic revolution" supposed to have occurred 
in the Punic city at the outcome of the first Punic War', a hypothesis 
inspired by Polybius, the Greek historian (c. 205-123 bce), who was 
taken to Rome in captivity and accompanied Scipio at the destruction of 
Carthage in 146 bce. He wrote: 'In Carthage the voice of the people had 
become predominant in deliberations, whereas in Rome the senate was 
at the full height of its powers. For the Carthaginians, it was the opinion 
of the greatest number that prevailed; for the Romans, that of the elite 

103 See for an even simpler society Barnard 2004. 104 Lancel 1997: 118. 

54 A socio-cultural genealogy 

of its citizens.' 103 In other words, a type of representative democracy was 
at times practised in the People's Assembly not only in Carthage but in 
Asia, in the mother city of Phoenician Tyre. 

In fact it is correct to compare the political arrangements in Greece with 
those of the West Semites of Phoenicia, partly as the result of similar geo- 
graphical conditions. Both were 'broken, geographically dismembered 
territories without a central organizing axis'; 106 in Phoenicia the moun- 
tains of Lebanon with their forests came down to the sea, in Greece 
the coast was hilly with narrow valleys. In both cases, the inhabitants 
looked towards the sea rather than the land. These conditions were con- 
sistent with 'the free world of the numerous small . . . city states' which 
was often contrasted with the 'Oriental military bureaucratic despotisms 
of Egypt and Mesopotamia'. But the contrast is not altogether correct, 
as Astour remarks, for Mesopotamia started out from small city-states 
'and strong survivals of municipal autonomy of larger cities existed even 
under the truly despotic neo-Assyrian empire. But even Assyria started 
out as an almost republican city-state.' 10 ' In some cases magistrates were 
appointed for an annual period by selection among the better-off resi- 
dents. 108 Childe refers to these early Mesopotamian city states as 'primi- 
tive democracies'. As a consequence, there is no sharp distinction between 
Oriental despotism and the democracy of the polis, whether of Greece 
or of Phoenicia. Regarding Mesopotamia, where 'city-states' abounded, 
Adams writes: 'Yet forty years later his successor in the kingship of Uruk 
was still constrained to share with an assembly his decision-making pow- 
ers concerned with warfare'. 109 It is this affinity between the two that 
Astour sees as the basis for the early Semitic colonies in Greece and later 
the Greek conquest of the Phoenician coast. 

I would suggest that the desire for some form of representation, to 
have one's voice heard, is intrinsic to the human situation, though there 
are often authoritarian voices among the elite raised against the practice, 
and these voices may prevail over long periods. Indeed Finley 110 suggests 
that even in modern times many representative democracies became elite 
institutions as a result of the professionalization of politics, which annual 
elections on the Carthaginian model would do something to combat; 111 
there would be more turn-over, more recall, more citizen participation. 

105 Polybius VI, 51; Lancel 1997: 118. Unfortunately the bulk of Polybius's history has 
been lost. 

106 Astour 1967: 358. 107 Astour 1967: 359, n. i. 108 Oppenheim 1964. 
109 Adams 1966: 140. u0 Finley 1970. 

An understanding of Carthage, unlike the classical societies of Europe at that time, 
is limited by the lack of documentary evidence. But that may be the result of the 
destruction or disposal of the libraries (Lancel 1997: 358-9). Aristotle, too, 'praises the 
democratic principles of Carthage' (Fantar 1995: 52), with an elected senate that had 


The invention of Antiquity 55 

The second of the three aspects of politics supposedly inherited from 
Greece is 'freedom', a feature again associated with their explicit and self- 
promoting ideology though they certainly practised slavery extensively, as 
did the Romans. That form of labour continued in later Europe, despite 
the frequently claimed commitment to freedom; indeed in the Carolin- 
gian period slaves were an important part of the continent's exports. 
Various forms of servile labour continued virtually until the Industrial 
Revolution, which some have also characterized as wage slavery since 
individuals had no direct access to the means of production and were 
therefore bound to work for some employer. Freedom is therefore a 
more complicated feature than might be thought. And, as Isaiah Berlin 
pointed out, there is a distinction to be drawn between the negative 
and positive concepts of liberty, between freedom from interference and 
coercion, which is seen as a good thing, and freedom to achieve self- 
realization, which easily slides into a justification for the coercion of 
others. 112 

Despite these evident lapses, the notion of freedom as a European 
attribute, inherited from the Greeks, returns time and again. In discussing 
the failure of later Muslim societies to 'modernize', Lewis goes through 
many alternative answers to the question of 'what went wrong', running 
from the presence of fundamentalism to the absence of democracy. He 
himself comes down in favour of 'the lack of freedom - freedom of the 
mind from constraint and indoctrination, to question and enquire and 
speak; freedom of the economy from corrupt and pervasive misman- 
agement, freedom of women from male oppression, freedom of citizens 
from tyranny'. 113 Although it is often considered to be virtually a west- 
ern monopoly, freedom used in these wide contexts has little meaning. 
Freedom of the mind seems to imply secularization, which is certainly 
one factor in developing new solutions, new knowledge. If you reject or 
qualify religious answers, you inevitably open up others. But for many 
that solution presents its own problems and people may simply prefer 
to limit the scope of religion without taking the road to full-time secu- 
larization. However, in considering Lewis's question, the Near East also 
fell behind in the 'knowledge revolution' which affected those mental 
operations of which he speaks for more concrete reasons. Partly, as I 
have suggested, it was because of the absence of the printing press as a 

many responsibilities, including for declaration of war, a popular assembly which elected 
magistrates {sufes or shophat) for a year's office. Fantar speaks of Carthage as 'profoundly 
democratic, giving preference to collegial structures' (p. 57). Personal power was abhor- 
rent, tyranny condemned; there was respect for the rule of law and individual rights 
were recognized, for which liberty is an appropriate word. 
Berlin 1958; Finley 1985: 6. 113 Lewis 2002: 177. 

56 A socio-cultural genealogy 

key to the circulation of information, as well as the Industrial Revolution 
and the growth of trading networks (Atlantic and Pacific) which preceded 
and followed it. With the opening up of the great Atlantic sea-ports, those 
networks of exchange between western Europe and the rest of the world 
largely bypassed the Near East. These are more concrete, specific factors 
than the highly generalized freedoms of which he speaks. 

Moreover, freedom is a relative, not an absolute concept. Freedom 
for the Shiites in Iran is not freedom for the Sunnis, Kurds, or other 
minorities; it is determined solely by the majority of a more or less arbi- 
trary electorate, yet 'democracy' in whatever form is one aspect of free- 
dom for the many. Electoral procedures can work where people are voting 
for policies; where the reference group is primordial in character, ethnic 
or religious, they can hardly be called representative. Freedom for one 
group is subordination for another. There can be no freedom for the 
aboriginal inhabitants of Australia or the United States. For them free- 
dom would be seen as the defeat of the majority, consisting of incoming 
conquerors, hardly something the loud protagonists of universal freedom 
would accept. 

Freedom, Finley insists, is the obverse of slavery. Slavery, he argues, 
was linked to freedom, obviously a kind of paradox. 

The Greeks, it is well known, discovered both the idea of individual freedom and 
the institutional framework in which it could be realized. The pre-Greek world - 
the world of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Egyptians and Assyrians; I cannot 
refrain from adding the Mycenaeans - was, in a very profound sense, a world 
without free men, in the sense in which the West has come to understand that 
concept . . . One aspect of Greek history, in short, is the advance, hand in hand, 
of freedom and slavery. 114 

Some historians have also tried to relate the achievements and singu- 
larity of the classical world to its use of slavery, to the slave mode of 
production in Marxist terms. Certainly the total control of the labour 
force would have been invaluable for the construction of the immense 
building works that marked that world. But other forms of labour organi- 
zation have achieved similar ends. In any case the extent of slave labour, 
always stimulated by military conquest, is unclear. Many activities in the 
classical world were carried on by other forms of labour, some of which 
constituted modalities of servile labour not so different from slavery itself. 
In any case we do not have any clear idea about the comparative levels of 
the use of slave labour in the various Bronze Age civilizations. It is some- 
times argued that while slavery existed in them all, only in the classical 

114 Finley 1960: 164. 

The invention of Antiquity 57 

world was it 'dominant'. Dominance is a difficult concept to utilize, as 
Love points out. : l3 Certainly slavery was widespread, largely as a result of 
the state's aggressive military policy as well as its commercial success. But 
in any case, other forms of labour were also significant, especially in the 
urban and craft sectors. The problem of slavery in the Ancient Near East 
is discussed by Adams. 116 He concludes concerning Finley: 'Seen in this 
light, the controversy between Soviet economic historians characterizing 
early state society as "slave" society and Western specialists insisting on 
the relatively small numbers of slaves in some respects becomes more a 
matter of nomenclature than of substance.' The characterization of 'slave 
societies' depends upon slavery being a 'dominant' institution of classical 
times whereas in Mesopotamia it was marginal. 11 ' The extent of slavery 
is clearly important but in the classical Mediterranean slavery was not 
unique as an institution, the prevalence of which can be exaggerated. 
The concept of 'freedom' certainly did not depend on numbers. 

While Finley argues for the centrality of slavery to social life in Greece 
(it was 'a basic element in Greek civilisation' 118 ), he also recognizes the 
wide range of other types of labour contributing to the work force. In the 
country smallholders took on temporary paid work, especially at harvest; 
there was 'a symbiosis between free and slave labour'. 119 In towns there 
was a more evident pool of casual labour. However, 'the more advanced 
the Greek city states', the more likely they were to have had 'true slavery'. 
But, while it was central to Greece, slavery was certainly not the only or 
even main, source of labour, either in agriculture or elsewhere. 120 Nor 
is it clear that a measure of freedom did not mark societies elsewhere; 
non-slave labour certainly existed in Mesopotamia. 

However, the alternative contention lies at the crux of Finley's view 
of Antiquity, which he sees as differing from the great Bronze Age soci- 
eties of the Ancient Near East partly because of the absence of irrigated 
agriculture but also because they 'discovered individual freedom' as well 
as practising slavery. Childe also sees Greek philosophy of the Iron Age 
preoccupied by the question of the individual and society (as was Indian 
philosophy), which in more concrete terms he considers as being the per- 
sonal speculation of individuals emancipated from complete dependence 
on the group by the advent of iron tools and coined money. 121 However, 
more cautiously he argues that these concerns appeared even in the Old 

115 Love 1991. n6 Adams 1966: 103-4. 117 Adams 1966: 96-7. 
118 Finley 1960: 69. 119 Finley 1960: 155. 

120 'Slave society' Bernal sees as introduced at the time of the invasions of the Sea Peoples 
on the Levantine coast, leading to a replacement of monarchical but commercial Bronze 
Age cities by ones dominated by a temple (1991: 8). 

121 Childe 1964:224. 

58 A socio-cultural genealogy 

Stone Age, so that notions of freedom and the individual were not unique 
to Greece. That seems entirely correct. 

Finley is rightly 'concerned with the language used to describe these 
statuses' and it is in this context that he and others ('it is well known') 
can talk of the 'discovery' of freedom. He justifies his point by the claim 
that no Near nor yet Far Eastern language (including Hebrew) provides 
a translation for the word freedom, eleutheria in Greek, libertas in Latin. 
Since an institution approximating to slavery existed in the other societies 
he mentions, whether or not it can be considered 'basic' or 'dominant', 
it seems inconceivable that there was no recognition of the difference 
between slavery and its absence, even if there was not a single noun to 
designate it. While slavery had been present among the groups with whom 
I worked in northern Ghana, there was no specific word used to describe 
being free; nevertheless people had no difficulty whatsoever in making 
the distinction between a 'slave' (or 'pawn') and other people. Indeed, if 
you were not a slave (gbangbaa), it was assumed you would be free and 
there was no need for a specific marker. 

The third contribution that Antiquity is supposed to have made to pol- 
itics was in providing the rule of law, a feature predominantly associated 
with the Roman tradition. Certainly the Romans developed an elabo- 
rate code of written law, as did other literate societies. But it is quite 
mistaken to suppose that even oral cultures were not governed by law 
in a wider sense, as Malinowski 122 and countless anthropologists have 
argued, above all perhaps Gluckman in his detailed study of law among 
the Barotse (Lozi) of Zambia. 123 Indeed the notion of the 'rule of law' has 
been interpreted by members of literate cultures in altogether too narrow 
a fashion. Textbooks have been written on Nuer Law, on Tswana Law 
and on many other systems; such oral law has often been incorporated in 
the written codes of the new nations of which they form part. It is true 
that recent events in Sub-Saharan Africa might give the impression that 
the security of the law was lacking in that continent. But so too might 
recent events in Iraq, the Balkans, or in eastern and at times even in west- 
ern Europe. The use of military force wherever it occurs is the opposite 
of the rule of law, even though the latter may emerge as one of the results 
of such actions. 

If we move to a more specific level, the widespread idea that individ- 
ual property rights are an invention of Roman law - or of the west - 
completely overlooks the sophisticated analysis by anthropologists of the 
jural order in oral cultures. What agricultural society could operate with- 
out having excluding (but not necessarily exclusive or permanent) rights 

122 Malinowski 1947. 123 Gluckman 1955; 1965. 

The invention of Antiquity 59 

to the plot being cultivated? The LoDagaa of northern Ghana, an oral 
culture where there was no overall shortage of farm land, marked the 
boundaries of plots very clearly with stones, often having black crosses 
painted on them warning of the trouble (largely mystical) that would 
come from encroachment. Boundary disputes, if not frequent, certainly 
took place here, as in all neighbouring societies. And they were often 
resolved by recognized jural procedures, by moots, intermediaries, or 
threats of violence. More complex written cultures had of course their 
own methods, including registration and deeds, and were found in all 
the post-Bronze Age societies. Written 'contracts' were used in China 
as 'documents of declaration', including the transfer of land - and had 
been since the Tang period. One example from nineteenth-century Tai- 
wan begins: 'The executor of this contract for the irrevocable sale of dry 
field land . . .'. 124 The vendor goes on to say that he has consulted close 
kin to determine whether they wanted to buy and, since the answer was 
negative, proceeds with the sale 'because my mother needs money'. The 
transaction is put into writing 'because we fear that oral agreement is 
unreliable', thus realizing that in principle it was also possible to trans- 
fer rights in land orally, without recourse to written procedures, but less 

The idea that such rights were absent until the advent of Roman law in 
Europe was held by many historians. For example, Weber first assumed, 
following his teacher Mommsen, that the original condition of man was 
'essentially communal'; 123 so too does Marx. However, it is one thing for 
nineteenth-century historians to make this assumption; it is quite another 
for twentieth-century practitioners to do the same. Earlier scholars had a 
paucity of documentation and fanciful notions about the past. Later writ- 
ers have access to a wealth of studies of recent societies with vaguely sim- 
ilar political economies which demonstrate the validity of Maine's notion 
of a hierarchy of rights in land, some located in the individual, others 
in particular groups. His grid dispenses with earlier dichotomies of indi- 
vidual and communal, categories that fail adequately to characterize the 
tenurial system of societies either in the past or in the present. Pre-literate 
societies too have hierarchies of rights, including both what can crudely 
be called individual and collective. 126 It is true that there are obvious 
methodological dangers in comparing the jural arrangements of Antiq- 
uity with the result of even a sophisticated study of a near-contemporary 
pre-literate judicial system like that carried out by Gluckman in Zambia, 

124 Cohen 2004: 41. 125 Love 1991: 15. 

126 On this general problem of collective and individual, and the way this crude dichotomy 
has bugged historical and sociological analysis, see Goody. 1996a: 17. 

60 A socio-cultural genealogy 

where the evidential base is strong. But such a procedure is clearly to 
be preferred to the generalized assumption about a communal phase, 
which pertains to the realm of myth rather than of history. The neglect 
of alternative 'sources' is partly a matter of ignorance, of the isolation of 
the respective disciplines, that makes for a deficient history. 

Religion and 'Black Athens' 

Part of the solution to the general problem of Greek culture is suggested 
by scholars who have started not from the uniqueness of classical society 
but have tried to establish connections and continuities with the Aegean 
and with the Middle East, particularly Egypt and the southern Levant 
in the work of Bernal, but Mesopotamia and the northern Levant in the 
case of others. Inflating the role of Greece, downplaying their mercantile 
activity and their market economy, means neglecting the wider context 
of Greek achievements, their contacts with Phoenicia and Egypt together 
with their importance as traders in the seas around their shores, in the 
eastern Mediterranean and in the Black Sea. These are the main con- 
tentions of the critique made by Bernal in Black Athena. 

The accepted interpretation of the cultural history of Ancient Greece 
is referred to by Bernal 12 ' as the Aryan model, one that depends upon 
the notion of an invasion of Indo-European speakers (or of Indo-Hittite 
in his more inclusive category), which is held to have had far-reaching 
consequences for the branching away of European history from that of its 
neighbours, and a rejection of the influence of Semitic influences (and of 
Afro-Asiatic, the larger family to which those languages belong) from the 
eastern shores of the Mediterranean. That model leads to the desire to 
play down the connections not only with Phoenicia but with Egypt, which 
he considers made a major contribution to Greek civilization, as indicated 
in the title to his major work. 128 The Aryan model, in Bernal's eyes, made 
'the history of Greece and its relations to Egypt and the Levant conform to 
the world-view of the nineteenth century and, specifically, to its systematic 
racism'. 129 He rejects that approach in favour of what he calls 'a revised 
Ancient model' which accepts ancient stories of Egyptian and Phoenician 
colonization of Greece, accepts in other words that Greece was influenced 
by contacts from across the eastern Mediterranean, affecting its language, 
its script, and its culture more generally, as Herodotus had originally 
suggested (hence 'the Ancient model'). 

One of the problems with Bernal's account is his argument that the 
shift of emphasis from the Ancient to the Aryan model only comes in the 

127 Bernal 1987, 1991. 128 Bernal 1987: 72. 129 Bernal 1987: 442. 

The invention of Antiquity 61 

nineteenth century with the development of racism and of anti-Semitism. 
Certainly these sentiments grew stronger at that time, with the world 
domination of Europe following the Industrial Revolution. But Bernal 
sees the appearance of these attitudes as a new development linked to the 
emergence of Indo-European philology in the 1840s, which produced an 
'extraordinary reluctance' to see any connections between Greek and the 
non-Indo-European languages. 

However, in my view the tendency to reject the eastern connection 
goes back to more general problems of 'roots' and of ethnocentrism, 
aggravated by the expansion of Islam from the seventh century 130 and 
the defeats involved in the Crusades and the Christian loss of Byzantium. 
At that time the opposition between Europe and Asia took the form 
of one between Christian Europe and Islamic Asia which inherited the 
earlier stereotypes of 'democratic' and 'despotic' respectively. Islam was 
conceived as a threat to Europe, not only militarily, which it became early 
on in the Mediterranean, but also morally and ethically; Muhammad is 
consigned by Dante to the eighth circle of the Inferno. At the broadest 
level, ethnocentrism divides all of us from the others and so helps to 
define our identity. But it is a bad guide to history, especially to world 

A further reason why Bernal seems to me mistaken in his late date for 
the development of ethnocentric attitudes is because he recognizes that 
the 'wellspring' of the Renaissance and of the humanists was 'classical 
literature'. At that time Greek and Roman thought was privileged above 
all others and provided humanism 'with much of its basic structure and 
method'. The possible links with the Near East, with Semitic and Afro- 
Asiatic cultures, including Carthage, were set on one side, as was the 
influence of Islam, which at the time of the Renaissance had already been 
present in Europe, in one way or another, for many centuries. Antiquity 
proved to be a refreshing contrast to medieval Christianity, and Antiquity 
was Greece and Rome, whose writings one could read. 

Bernal, on the other hand, thinks there are sufficient parallels in, for 
instance, religion and philosophy to assert that Greek religion is basi- 
cally Egyptian and was the result of colonization. Some of the evidence 
derives from linguistic comparisons; however, my limited experience of 
the philology of African languages suggests that these comparisons are 
often too tenuous and hazardous to form the basis of profound cultural 
conclusions. In any case religions, to take one example, underwent con- 
stant invention and decline, obsolescence and creation, which makes it 
less profitable to look for borrowings in, for example, the case of the 

130 Goody 2003b. 

62 A socio-cultural genealogy 

bull-cults on which Bernal places much importance. Any cattle-raising 
group is potentially likely to have a type of such a cult; again, all such cults 
fail to deliver from time to time and may then be replaced by new ones. 
I would therefore give more place to what anthropologists have called 
independent invention in this sphere than I think his hypothesis appears 
to allow. That does not happen everywhere; the influence of Egyptian 
hieroglyphics on Minoan writing is generally accepted, as is the influence 
of the Egyptian column on Greek architecture. But with religious cults 
invention is often independent. 

Of course the influences work in both directions. Egypt was affected by 
its constant communication with the Levant and with its recruitment of 
soldiers and sailors from that area. During the Hyksos period, the rulers 
were foreigners who established themselves at Avaris (Tell al-Dab'a) in 
the Delta and pursued a vigorous trading policy with Asia, with ready 
access to the turquoise mines at Serabit el-Khadim and the trade through 
donkey caravans. Egypt lacked a sea-going fleet at this time and may have 
welcomed Minoan protection. 131 Much pottery was imported; fragments 
of Minoan wall painting were found in Avaris that have relations with the 
Thera wall paintings at Akrotini. : 32 During that period 'contacts between 
Knossos and the Delta were more profound . . . than they had previously 
been'. 133 

The theme of the possible Egyptian contribution to Eurasian religion 
was taken up by Freud in his monograph on Moses and Monotheism 
(1939). There he notoriously claimed that Moses was an Egyptian who 
derived his monotheism from the 'heretic' Pharaoh, Akenaton. Of the 
likelihood of such an influence I cannot judge. I would add however that 
the possibility of a switch to monotheism, and back again, as some Protes- 
tants would claim happened in Christianity, is an ever-present possibility 
in many human societies as the result of a Creation myth that emphasizes 
the uniqueness of the process. One reason is that Creation is viewed as a 
unique act (often of a Creator God) while lesser deities tend to proliferate 
as intermediaries. 

Freud's contention was that 'the rule of Pharaoh's empire was the 
external reason for the appearance of the monotheistic idea'. 134 Politi- 
cal centralization led to religious centralization. But many missionaries 
and anthropologists have reported, if not monotheism, at least the exis- 
tence of a Supreme Deity in simpler cultures, a deity who is a Creator God 
and who created lesser deities. In Africa he becomes the deus otiosus, who 

131 Bietak 2000:40. 132 Davies and Schofield 1995; Sherratt 2000. 

1 33 P. Warren, 'Minoan Crete and Pharaonic Egypt', in Davies and Schofield 1995: 8. 

134 Freud 1964 [1939]: 108. 

The invention of Antiquity 63 

is rarely worshipped, yet the fact that he created the universe raises the 
possibility that he may return to a more active existence. In this context, 
the appearance of monotheism is not difficult to understand. 

Despite some reservations I have no doubt at all about the correctness 
of Bernal's main contention that 

(a) in this neglect 'racial' factors have played a significant part. But I 
regard these factors as being of a much more long-standing origin 
than he suggests and as being linked to notions of cultural as well as 
racial superiority; 

(b) connections between Ancient Greece and the Near East have been 
greatly neglected; the marginalization of Phoenicia and Carthage are 
obvious examples of this process. The religion of Carthage was influ- 
enced both by Greece and by Egypt. 

Bernal is not alone in trying to establish a higher degree of commonality 
between Mediterranean societies than is usually recognized. The insis- 
tence on a connection between the Semitic-speaking peoples of the Asi- 
atic coast and the Greeks has been at the core of the work of a number of 
Jewish Semitic scholars, notably Cyrus Gordon. 135 He undertook a pio- 
neering study of the grammar of Ugaritic, analysing that newly discovered 
Semitic language from the tablets found in the north Syrian town which 
provided evidence of the earliest alphabetic script. Gordon attempted to 
link the Phoenician settlement of Ugarit with Crete, and in 1955 pub- 
lished a monograph entitled Homer and the Bible concluding that 'Greek 
and Hebrew civilizations were parallel structures built on the same east 
Mediterranean foundations.' 136 The notion was heretical for many at 
the time. Since the Second World War, however, the earlier rejection of 
Phoenician influence on Greece has been modified. The idea of Phoeni- 
cian settlements not simply on the islands but at Thebes on the mainland, 
has become more acceptable; 13 ' so that the influence on Iron Age Greece 
is now seen possibly to have begun as early as the tenth century. 

Phoenicians were voyaging throughout the Mediterranean. They were 
a coastal community that had to look abroad for trading opportunities, 
especially in metal, and developed alphabetic writing as a simple way of 
recording transactions. One sees very well how the Phoenicians became 
traders, both in wood and in metals. The mountains of Lebanon virtually 
come down to the sea from Sidon northwards. Even Tyre has a limited 
coastal strip. So the cedars of Lebanon were exchanged with Egypt for 
the building of boats (Egypt had no timber), and with Israel for the con- 
struction of temples, in return for grain. And they travelled throughout 

135 See also the work of his colleague Astour 1967, as well as Ward 1971. 

136 Bernal 1987: 416. 137 Bernal 1991: 6. 

64 A socio-cultural genealogy 

the Mediterranean to Carthage, Cadiz, and even to Cornwall, to search 
for metals, in the last two places particularly for tin to use in the making 
of bronze. One result of their travels was the very considerable colony 
of Carthage, established in present-day Tunisia. They were even said to 
have led an Egyptian expedition that circumnavigated Africa in about 
600 bce. In any case, they were the great sea-farers and rich merchants, 
not only of the Aegean but of the whole of the Mediterranean. While 
some nineteenth-century scholars such as Beloch vigorously denied the 
presence of Phoenicians in the Aegean before the eighth century bce, 
archaeological evidence indicates 'thriving commercial relations between 
the Aegean world and the eastern Mediterranean coast during the second 
millennium' and in the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. 138 Indeed, the 
author Jidejian claims that the Cadmus story 'reflects an early western 
Semitic penetration into mainland Greece'. 139 According to Herodotus, 
Cadmus, the son of the King of Tyre, who was sent to search for his 
sister, Europa, ended by founding the Greek city of Thebes. It was the 
Phoenician Cadmus who brought the alphabet to Boetia in Greece and 
there are stories of Phoenician settlements in Rhodes and elsewhere; the 
tradition of Cadmus founding the dynasty of Oedipus persisted in the 
ancient world. So they certainly had many contacts with and influences 
upon not only the ancient Near East, but what we call the classical world, 
of which they were essentially a part. 

In the work of most classicists the concentration on Greece and Rome 
has not only played down the contribution of Phoenicia to the emergence 
of the alphabet (750 years before Greece in the consonantal sense) as well 
as the literate achievements in Semitic languages, but has also relegated 
Carthage, initially a Phoenician trading community and later a consid- 
erable empire in the western Mediterranean, to the margins of history. 
Not simply to the margins of history but to that of 'barbarian' status, 
partly because of the insistence of the Romans on their practice of child 
sacrifice, the evidence for which is open to a number of doubts. In any 
case it is not clear why that is any more barbaric than certain events in 
the Old Testament, such as the sacrifice of Isaac, nor yet the exposure of 
illegitimate infants in Rome, or certain Spartan practices which, however, 
get largely interpreted as giving rise to discipline. What is clear is that a 
highly accomplished civilization, a rival as well as a predecessor of Rome, 
has been excluded from the category of Antiquity in much the same way 
as the societies of the Near East, even though it was the contemporary 

138 Jidejian 1996: 66. 

139 For a cautious evaluation of the connections between Egypt and the Aegean between 
2200 and 1900 BCE, see Ward 1971, especially 119ff. 

The invention of Antiquity 65 

and counterpart first of Greece and then of Rome from the fifth century 
when the scattered emporia were united. 

One problem in our knowledge of the contribution of Carthage and 
Phoenicia to Mediterranean culture is that we have so few of their own 
written records. The Phoenicians clearly kept records of various kinds 
since they had an alphabet. Moreover Josephus later wrote that 'among 
the nations in touch with the Greeks, it was the Phoenicians who made 
the largest use of writing both for recording affairs of life and for the 
commemoration of public events'. He further comments that 'for many 
years past the people of Tyre have kept public records, compiled and 
very carefully preserved by the state, of the memorable events in their 
internal history and in their relations with foreign nations'. 140 None of 
these documents have survived but they may have been written on perish- 
able papyrus imported from Egypt rather than on more enduring tablets. 
Phoenician inscriptions, mainly short, have been found in all the coastal 
towns but otherwise little or nothing remains, unless we extend our hori- 
zon to Judaism. 

That is why, although they were a major part of the ancient world, the 
Phoenicians did not leave the literary or artistic heritage bequeathed by 
the Greeks and Romans. As far as the literary heritage goes, the libraries 
of Carthage were destroyed or disappeared as the result of the town's 
destruction by the Romans in 146 bce. There is evidence of their agri- 
cultural knowledge not only in the advanced farming they practised but 
also in the translation into Latin of a text book on the subject. 

The dismissal of the role of the Semites in the eastern Mediterranean 
therefore contradicts the widespread evidence of the sea-faring Phoeni- 
cians in that region. The Phoenicians inhabited a number of well-known 
'city-states' (as they are described) along the Levant coast mainly in 
present-day Lebanon, stretching from Acre in Israel/Palestine to Ugarit 
in Syria. 

Conclusion: Antiquity and the Europe-Asia Dichotomy 

The Greeks were defined as different not only by themselves but by later 
Europeans. What do classicists like Finley see as the driving force behind 
the presumed differentiation from the rest of the Near East, with which it 
was actively exchanging goods and ideas? The supposed political differ- 
ences hardly seem sufficient in themselves. Whatever the special charac- 
teristics of the world of Antiquity, what is lacking in scholars' accounts is 
how and why Europe and the Mediterranean diverged from the generality 

140 Bernal 1991: 6. 

66 A socio-cultural genealogy 

of post-Bronze Age societies in such a way as to be considered a distinct 
(and possibly progressive) societal type and mode of production. Their 
achievements in terms of knowledge systems, of sculpture, of drama, 
of poetry were immense but regarding the existence of a special soci- 
etal type, we have expressed our doubts. The dominance of slavery has 
been selected by many commentators as the crucial difference of classical 
societies. Its prevalence, I have shown, had both advantages and disad- 
vantages as far as the growth of the culture and of the economy were 
concerned. In any case it did not perhaps constitute such an enormous 
distinction between the western and eastern modes of livelihood as the 
dichotomy between Ancient and Asiatic modes would suggest. The use 
of slave labour may have been extensive but there seems to have been 
little difference in the technical means of production. In Antiquity the 
widespread use of iron, a much cheaper metal than copper or tin, univer- 
sally available, had important consequences, but that was the case with all 
the societies in the region. 141 Whatever other developments took place, 
notably in water engineering and in crop development, were broadly con- 
tinuous with what preceded them. At these levels the contrast was less 
marked than most classical historians allow. 

The very notion that what occurred in the east represented 'Asiatic 
exceptionalism' and that the western sequence of events was 'normal' 
embodies an unwarranted European assumption, based on the vantage 
point of the nineteenth century, which asserts that it pointed to the only 
road to 'capitalism'. And that idea arises from a conflation of capital- 
ism, in the broad sense in which the historian Braudel often employed 
the term, with the development of industrial production, a much more 
specific economic event, often seen as involving 'productive investment' 
(though that is a general factor even in agricultural societies) . While west- 
ern Europe itself became 'exceptional' in the nineteenth century, it is not 
apparent that earlier on it was out of line with other major civilizations, 
except in terms of its advantages in the era of the 'Great Voyages' per- 
haps related to technical developments in 'guns and sails' and following 
its adoption of printing long practised in China, to an alphabetic script 
using movable type. That development permitted the more rapid circula- 
tion (and accumulation) of information, an advantage which the Chinese 
and Arabic civilizations had earlier enjoyed because of their use of paper, 
and in the first case of printing. 

The effect of differentiating the Ancient from the Asiatic development 
of post-Bronze Age civilization creates an explanatory problem relating to 
that supposed divergence. At the same time it pushes back the question 

141 Childe 1964, chapter 9. 

The invention of Antiquity 67 

of the origin of capitalism to the supposed roots of European culture. 
Because already in Antiquity, according to many classicists, Europe was 
pursuing the right path in that direction, whereas Asia had gone astray. 
Until recently that was the view of the majority of 'humanists' who saw 
European culture as springing from the achievements of Roman and 
Greek society in a quite unique way. These achievements have some- 
times been put down to 'Greek genius', as did Burkhardt in a manner 
that is difficult to discuss from a straightforward historical or sociolog- 
ical point of view. Sometimes they have been seen as connected with 
the invention of the alphabet in a way that neglects the Asiatic (Semitic) 
roots of systematic phonetic transcription as well as the very considerable 
achievements of other systems of writing. 142 Sometimes Greek science 
(or logic) is given a unique status with regard to later developments, an 
idea that would seem to have been refuted by Needham's encyclopaedic 
work on Science and Civilization in China. 143,144 Each of these factors 
appeals to some extent to the means of communication and made some 
contribution to later developments at the time of the Renaissance but it 
is difficult to accept a categorical distinction in the levels of achievement 
between east and west, Europe and Asia, before that period. Indeed most 
would accept that until then cultural and economic attainments were not 
greatly different and that mercantile 'capitalism', urban cultures, and lit- 
erate activity were present elsewhere at least to the same degree. 

142 Goody 1977. 

143 Needham, Science and Civilization in China, 1954. This is not always Needham's con- 
clusion as he is inclined to see 'modern science' as emerging only in the west for reasons 
that go back to the Greeks. I comment in a later chapter upon this suggestion. 

144 This subject has been sensitively approached by G E. R. Lloyd (1979) from a somewhat 
different point of view. 

Feudalism: a transition to capitalism 
or the collapse of Europe and the 
domination of Asia? 

The word feudalism is used in a variety of ways. Often it refers in ordi- 
nary speech to any hierarchy that is not elected, not achieved, such as 
the original House of Lords. In more technical language, we may follow 
Strayer's distinctions: 'One group of scholars uses the word to describe 
the technical arrangements by which vassals become dependents of lords, 
and landed property (with attached economic benefits) became organized 
as dependent tenures of fiefs. The other group of scholars uses feudal- 
ism as a general word which sums up the dominant forms of social and 
political organization during certain centuries of the Middle Ages'. 1 In 
his introduction to Marc Bloch's study, Feudal Society, Postan makes a 
similar distinction between those Anglophone speakers who assess mil- 
itary fiefs and Soviet scholars who discourse on class domination and 
the exploitation of peasants by landlords. Like Bloch, Postan prefers the 
latter approach. 2 Here we use the term to refer to a period that followed 
classical Antiquity in Europe. 

The shift to feudalism from Antiquity 

In western eyes feudalism has often been seen as a transition to capitalism 
and as a 'progressive' phase in the development of the west, a phase which 
other societies could not have attained in the same way. Its absence, like 
that of Antiquity, excluded others from the path to modernity. However, 
this period demonstrated little that was definitely intrinsic to the later 
expansion of mercantile and emergence of industrial capitalism except 
in so far as a regressive phase is sometimes followed by more vigorous 
innovative action, as has been argued for the Dark Age in Greece - the 
advantage of backwardness. Revival came partly through contact with the 
east and was not a purely endogenous growth. It was not the Merovin- 
gians and Carolingians who were heirs to the Roman Empire but rather 
Constantinople. 'Seen as part of world history, the West was reduced 

1 Strayer 1956: 15. 2 M. Postan, foreword in Bloch 1961. 


Feudalism 69 

to a forgotten corner of the world whose centre was now in the eastern 
Mediterranean basin, namely, the Byzantium Empire, and later also the 
Arab countries.' 3 Indeed the centre probably lay even further east. 

Despite this exclusive view of feudalism, some form of great estate, 
with obligations attached, existed almost everywhere in post-Bronze Age 
cultures. Moreover urban cultures continued to develop in the east with 
some hiccups but nothing like those in the west, which in this respect was 
marked by 'occidental exceptionalism'. Its collapse did not spread to the 
eastern Mediterranean, where in many respects towns and their urban 
culture, as at Constantinople or Alexandria, continued earlier develop- 
ments, especially economically, for they persisted as craft centres, as 
homes for educational establishments and as entrepots for trade, espe- 
cially with the east. 

Decline in the west, continuity in the east 

While the timing of the shift from Antiquity to Feudalism may be ques- 
tionable, the events themselves were not. At least in the west a dramatic 
collapse took place. So the critical feature of the west was not the pro- 
gressive development of culture from the Roman period, as many have 
chosen to assume, but the disastrous decline of urban cultures with the 
collapse of that empire. The political economy of western Europe was 
always more fragile than in the east, less profoundly based on the urban 
revolution of the Bronze Age. Consequently it was much more liable to 
collapse when the empire weakened. Clearly the aspect of collapse, then 
later a renewal, was very important in European feudalism and Southall 
sees this as central in all feudalisms which he consequently considers 
widespread. 4 

That collapse in western Europe was partly the result of the external 
fact of barbarian invasions as well as of the rise of Christianity and Chris- 
tian power, but many authors have also seen it as due to internal factors 
such as the weaknesses (contradictions) of the slave mode of production, 
and possibly due to a longer-term economic decline since 200 ce or else to 
a decrease in population. The process of production has also been held to 
account in so far as there was a big expansion of large estates {latifundia) , 
which became increasingly self-sufficient, a development that has been 
spoken of as an early feudalization. Some have seen the problem as one 
of exporting industry rather than the products, 3 as a result of which there 
was no expansion. Committed to the export of bullion in exchange for 
goods, the Roman economy became bankrupt. 

3 Slicher van Bath 1963: 31. 4 Southall 1998. 5 Childe 1964: 283. 

70 A socio-cultural genealogy 

Much has been written about the decline of social life with the end 
of the Roman Empire. 6 The north suffered most severely, especially 
Britain 'where cities, together with Christianity, seem practically to have 
disappeared'; 7 the same happened in the Balkans, though other areas 
did much better, especially southern Spain. Even in northern Italy three- 
quarters of the hundred municipium survived until 1 000 ce. Nevertheless 
the collapse of the west has been seen as paradigmatic for world history, 
the fall of Antiquity and its urban centres leading to the prevalence of 
feudalism, the later stages of which saw the emergence of capitalism. A 
recognition of the different history of the west and that of the east and 
south of the Mediterranean puts the general course of events in a very 
different light. 

What it is important to ask is how far the collapse of Rome affected 
the empire in the east as well as in the west. European historians have 
looked at these events very much from the standpoint of western Europe, 
excluding eastern Europe as well as the east more generally. Even during 
Roman times there were significant differences between the east and the 
west of the Empire. The east was more closely connected to Asian trade, 
with huge Roman cities like Palmyra and Apamea being constructed in 
the Levant and in western Asia generally. The difference is clearly out- 
lined in Anderson's Passages from Antiquity. The west was less diversely 
populated, less urbanized and its political economy was not itself based 
on the complex civilizations of the Near East which had existed in Egypt 
and the Levant. It was marked by rain-fed rather than irrigated agricul- 
ture, with fewer towns and less trade. The west was in decline: the rural 
areas had taken over from the cities where activity had become greatly 
diminished. 8 The rich estates {latifundia) had expanded, incorporating 
peasants and artisans into their closed economies. The Romans changed 
the economic base by introducing more complex farming, often orga- 
nized around the villa, and in some parts around the latifundia as well, 
which were based on extensive slave labour. There was therefore some 
elaboration in the western countryside. Further mechanization took place 
and water wheels spread in late Antiquity. 9 But the east was less affected 
by invasions, urban life was more active and the peasantry resisted the 

The concept 'decline' is used with reference to specific criteria (e.g., rate of literacy) and 
has to be taken in context of our earlier discussion (chapter 1) of 'progression' as distinct 
from 'progress'. The latter involves a value judgement about superiority in all fields. The 
concept of 'progression' dismisses the notion of complete relativity in all spheres and 
recognizes that a movement has occurred in a number of fields, for example, in modes of 
production and modes of communication. 

The following section was first given as the Tillion lecture in Aix in March 2004. 
Petit 1997: 336. 9 McCormick 2001: 10. 

Feudalism 7 1 

settler system implied in latifundia. In towns such as Carthage, Athens, 
Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria, higher education continued. 

In the eastern Mediterranean, according to Childe, city life, with all its 
implications, went on: 

most crafts were still plied with all the technical skill and equipment evolved 
in Classical and Hellenistic times. Farms were still worked scientifically to pro- 
duce for the market. Barter did not entirely oust the money economy, nor did 
self-sufficiency paralyse trade completely. Writing was not forgotten. Indeed, at 
Alexandria and Byzantium scientific and literary texts were studiously copied and 
preserved. Greek medicine was practised in public hospitals with the blessings of 
the Church. 10 

The west suffered more but cathedral cities arose, travel continued, as 
did the manufacture of glass; the use of water wheels expanded. 

The argument has been made that Roman prosperity depended upon 
the interdependence between one region and another. Ward-Perkins dis- 
putes Finley's emphasis on local economies but recognizes that all parts 
of the empire were not as tightly linked. When Rome collapsed as a polity, 
so did the overall economy which depended upon it, but with different 
results in the west and in the east. Especially the 'fifth century is a period 
of growing prosperity in the east and of marked economic decline in 
the west'. 11 The Mediterranean world in 600 ce bore strong similarities 
to the pre-Roman period of around 300 bce - a developed commercial 
economy in the east extending to Carthage, Sicily, and southern Italy, 
'barbarism' in the west. That difference was partly because the east, and 
to some extent the south, were more closely integrated into the exchange 
economy of Asia. By the seventh century, Italy and even Byzantium 'look 
very different from the contemporary (and by this time Arab) Near East, 
where there is much more evidence of continued economic complexity 
and prosperity'. 12 

How different were towns and markets in the east? It has been asserted 
that Islamic cities and markets fell into a distinct category from those in 
the west or even those further east. 13 There may well have been some 
general characteristics that differentiated them but these variants were 
swamped by similar problems, similar features, a similar organization of 
people massed together. Outsiders have a constant tendency to exaggerate 
the differences (which are often 'cultural', of the surface) and neglect the 
similarities (which are often 'structural', more deep-seated). Take the 
urban situation. In the Far East this has been described as a peddler 
economy; 14 in the Near East, it is a bazaar economy, and always opposed 

10 Childe 1964: 290. u Ward-Perkins 2000: 382. 12 Ward-Perkins 2000: 360. 
13 Goitein 1999. 14 van Leur 1955. 

72 A socio-cultural genealogy 

to western economy. 13 In fact these low-level methods of selling small 
portable commodities have their structural parallels in the markets, shops, 
and travelling salesmen of the west. They are in any case only one aspect 
of the total economies of these different societies, where the forms of 
trading, banking, and investment are much more alike. So too with the 
town, whether it is walled or not, whether there are streets occupied by 
a single craft, whether the rich and poor live cheek by jowl, these are 
important but not determining features for the growth of the economy; 
the town carries on its business in a variety of circumstances. 

The west lost touch with these developments; from the fourth century 
the gradual disappearance of knowledge of Greek cut them off from Con- 
stantinople until the Renaissance. The collapse of the Roman empire had 
been accompanied by the growth of Christianity which had a profound 
effect on artistic and intellectual life. As in the other monotheistic reli- 
gions, the church was initially against many of the arts, especially theatre, 
sculpture, secular painting. The predominant sway of dogmatic belief 
could mean a restriction in the range of intellectual enquiry. We have 
seen that in the west the emperor Justinian did not encourage the teach- 
ing of philosophy, which was open to attack from Christianity because it 
raised questions such as whether the world was created or uncreated, or 
about the relation between the human and the divine, problems on which 
that religion had already pronounced authoritatively. In many cases there 
was even some diminution of knowledge. Of few spheres was this clearer 
than medicine, since the dissection of the human body ('made in God's 
image') was now forbidden. 

During the early centuries of the Christian Era, learned doctors came to 
Rome, including Galen. He was heir to the great tradition of the Hellenis- 
tic medical school at Alexandria, where Herophilus practised anatomical 
dissections. But dissection of the human body was by then illegal, and 
Galen was forced to depend upon the examination of animals. After the 
fall of Rome, learning was no longer held in such high esteem, exper- 
iment was discouraged, and originality became a dangerous asset. The 
historian of science, Charles Singer, writes of the anti-scientific charac- 
ter of Christianity in relation to medicine, which underwent a period of 
'progressive disintegration'. 16 'During the early Middle Ages medicine 
passed into the widely diverse hands of the Christian Church and Arab 
Scholars . . . Disease was regarded as a punishment for sin, and such chas- 
tening demanded only prayer and repentance.' 1 ' In one respect he claims 
that Christianity may have helped: with the use of nuns more humane 

15 Geertz 1979, Weiss and Westerman 1998. 16 Singer 1950: 215. 
17 Guthrie and Hartley 1977: 890. 

Feudalism 73 

nursing developed, which provided great benefits for the sick. However, 
hospitals were certainly not a Christian invention and nursing took place 
in the great hospitals in Baghdad and elsewhere. The only real contribu- 
tion the west made towards the preservation of medical knowledge, if not 
its increase, was the translation into Latin of Greek medical texts, which 
were retained in some monasteries. 18 A somewhat more dynamic picture 
is presented by eastern Christianity. Persian Christians from the Nesto- 
rian church assisted the transmission of classical medical knowledge by 
translating texts into Arabic. From Persia too came the physician Rhazis 
(al-Razi, second half of the ninth century) as well as Avicenna (980- 
1037) whose principal work, The Canons of Medicine, was being used at 
the medical school in Montpelier as late as 1650. But the Arabs added lit- 
tle in anatomy or physiology of their own; they had similar restrictions to 
the Christians about cutting up the human body. In the west, dissection 
began again only with the founding of medical schools in the twelfth cen- 
tury. At that time a renaissance and indeed extension of knowledge of this 
kind saw the building of the magnificent anatomy theatres of the north 
Italian cities, Milan, Florence, and Bologna, in the first two of which 
Leonardo da Vinci performed some thirty investigations. The history of 
investigative medicine thus presents a resume of the decline and fall of 
much knowledge in the medieval west. 

But in the east and south there was a different situation, at least com- 
mercially. The eastern Mediterranean as a whole was less dependent for 
its prosperity on trade with the ex-Roman north and west. In Syria during 
the first centuries ce the desert entrepot of Palmyra imported a wide range 
of goods from further east, from China as well as from India, which are 
recorded in a famous Tariff dated 187. The Tariff specifies many items of 
trade, including slaves, purple dye, aromatic oils, olive oil, salted goods, 
cattle, as well as prostitutes. The Syrians have been called the middlemen 
of Antiquity. Their vessels went everywhere and Syro-Phoenician bankers 
were present in all the markets. Palmyran merchant communities resided 
at Doura-Europus on the river Euphrates in the east and at Rome in the 
west. Excavations have produced silk yarn and jade from China, as well 
as muslin, spices, ebony, myrrh, ivory, pearls, and precious stones. Glass 
came from Syria, green glaze pottery from Mesopotamia, some wares 
from the Mediterranean through Antioch, and many other items of the 
luxury trade. 19 

In Carthage and the Maghreb in North Africa, the power of Vandal 
rule is no longer seen as one of such economic decline, for overseas trade 
continued as before, there and under the subsequent Byzantine conquest 

18 See Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 122ff. 19 Browning 1979: 16-18. 

74 A socio-cultural genealogy 

right up until the Arab invasion. African exports of red-slip ware, for 
example, persisted to the seventh century. With the Byzantine invasion 
in 533, the situation did not greatly change. More investment seems to 
have been made in cities like Carthage, and commerce was diverted from 
Europe to Constantinople and the east when the Arabs arrived in the 
middle of the seventh century. The province was still rich in oil and 
wheat, and valuable goods were being imported from the east, though 
these later declined. 20 

City life and particularly commercial activities suffered more under 
Christianity in the north than under Islam in the south. In the east, I 
have argued, the commercial centres were particularly linked with long- 
distance trade, whereas in the west this far-flung exchange largely col- 
lapsed with Rome. Instead we see the emergence of 'cities of prayer', of 
towns in which the dominant element had become ecclesiastical, partly 
because of the collapse of commerce that had flourished with the Roman 
state, partly because of the rise of the church. That rise meant the shift of 
funding from the municipality to the ecclesia. As has been remarked, 'It 
is characteristic of the age that the balance of munificence shifts from the 
old civil projects of baths and theatres to religious building.' 21 In Islam 
too there was the problem of funding the religious establishment, but 
the needs were less demanding. There were magnificent mosques and 
later madrasahs, which were often supported by the markets attached to 
them, but an establishment without bishops and, in general, without full 
time clergy and having no monastic culture, meant lower demands on 
the economy. 

We learn from the work of Goitein, the historian who spent his life 
working on the medieval Jewish manuscripts found in a Cairo cemetery 
in the late nineteenth century, as well as from other sources, that this city 
remained as much a centre of trade with the further east as it had done in 
the Roman period. 22 Jewish and Muslim traders were constantly visiting 
the Malabar coast of western India, just as eastern Indians were coming 
to Egypt. 23 The same was true of Constantinople. Needham refers to a 
Chinese scholar coming to Baghdad, and Europeans continued, sporad- 
ically, to travel the land route to China. That did not mean the decline 
of the trade with the west counted for nothing. While the Near East was 
inevitably affected by the European downturn, the main focus of its trade, 
however, lay elsewhere. Western Europe lay at the end of the line. If its 
demand for eastern luxuries, spices, textiles, perfumes, ceramics, fell off, 
there were other markets. Trade with North Africa continued, as we see 

20 Cameron 2000. 21 McCormick 2001. See also Speiser 1985. 
22 Miller 1969. 23 Ghosh 1992. 

Feudalism 75 

from the case of the merchant trading between India and Tunis that first 
attracted the attention of the historian Goitein to this commerce. The 
Near East had its own active markets which needed to be supplied. So 
commerce continued in an easterly direction even when the westerly route 
had become of marginal importance. India remained a goal for traders of 
the Near East as the whole history of the settlement of Jewish, Christian, 
and Muslim communities on the Malabar coast testifies, leaving a major 
mark on the Geniza documents. There are many references to the trade 
in pepper with south-west India in the well-known traders' handbook, 
The Periplus Maris Erythraei, composed around 50 ce by a Greek pilot, 
as well as in other Roman sources. Trade with India remained of great 
importance from Roman times onwards. The entrepot of Muziris, situ- 
ated near the present-day Cochin, being the supposed landing place for 
the missionary St Thomas and the Syrian (Nestorian) Christians, 24 was 
an important centre for Alexandrian shippers, as we see from a papyrus 
recording a written contract about 1 50 ce for the transport of goods from 
a Red Sea port to the customs-bonded warehouse in Alexandria. While 
it had been assumed there was a decline in this trade between the second 
and fourth centuries, that does not seem to be altogether the case. Indian 
merchant ships were still transporting pepper to Egypt for the Roman 
market in the sixth century. Indeed there continued to be a major trading 
centre in western India for Christians, Jewish, and Muslim communities 
up to Geniza times and later. 

Meanwhile Turkey and Syria provided alternative markets for goods 
from China, Iran, and the Caucasus. Their exchange was oriented mainly 
in a non-European direction. It was this eastern commerce into which 
Venice, followed by the towns of western Italy, Parma, Genoa, Amalfi, 
gained a foothold, picking up trade as the European economy gathered 
momentum in the new millennium with the Crusades and the entry of 
western Europe into the Mediterranean. 

For Venice was not the only Mediterranean power to re-open com- 
merce between Europe, Asia, and Africa. One of the Italian towns that 
was founded on the revival of trade in the eastern Mediterranean was not 
from there or from Tuscany, the homes of the merchant families in Flo- 
rence (Medicis) and of Prato (Datini), but from Campania, specifically 
Amalfi (and Ravello), near to Salerno to the south and Naples to the east, 
under Angevin rule. The towns became very active in merchant activity 
{mercatantid) from an early period. Already, in 836, the Lombard princes 
had given the Amalfians an 'unusual freedom to travel'. 23 They were 
quick to take advantage of that liberty and traded grain, oil, and lumber 

24 Gurukkal and Whittaker 2001 . 25 Caskey 2004: 9. 

76 A socio-cultural genealogy 

with Byzantium, Syria, and Egypt for silks and spices, some of which they 
then sold in Aghlabid North Africa and Sicily for gold, a rare commodity 
in the west of that time. Amalfian merchants traded with Constantinople, 
Cairo, and Antioch and even Cordova as early as the tenth century, with 
a sizeable community in Jerusalem in the eleventh. Indeed Byzantine and 
Fatimid currencies were widely in use in local transactions in that period, 
giving some idea of the impact of long-distance trade in the region. The 
Italian towns renewed part of an easterly oriented trading network with 
Byzantium and the East, stimulated by Lombard rule. This revival owed 
little to Antiquity or feudalism but represented a more general take-up of 
mercantile culture. 

The activities of Amalfi brought the town prosperity. This was, how- 
ever, not a purely Christian or western achievement, as the south's diverse 
population included Jewish and Muslim communities as well as Chris- 
tian, all participating in the commercial activity: this was a multicultural 
society, a fact that is reflected in the arts that were promoted by mer- 
catantia around Amalfi, for example the bronze doors of the cathedrals 
were made in Constantinople about 1061. This commercial activity is 
described by Caskey as 'nascent capitalism', 26 which in fact clashed not 
only with Christian values but with other values promulgated by the Abra- 
hamistic religions concerning usury. Merchant activity was contested by 
religion, here as elsewhere, but it clearly won out in the end; the contri- 
bution of merchants to those regimes was part of this very process. 

Much of this art in Amalfi was commissioned by merchants, especially 
the house of the Rufolos of Ravello who were celebrated by Boccacio in 
one of his early novella about commercial existence. But the story also 
illustrates the dangers as well as the achievements of merchant life. For 
the family was charged with corruption and the father executed in 1283 
by the Angevin, Charles of Salerno, later king Charles II of Sicily, where 
they had ruled from 1265 at the behest of the Pope. 27 

Southern Spain, like parts of Italy, remained integrated in the Mediter- 
ranean trading network, due to its Islamic connections. Obviously the 
Muslims, who may well have assisted in the collapse of European com- 
merce in the Mediterranean, 28 maintained contact after 7 1 1 ce with their 
conquests in Spain. Traffic between Andalucia and the African main- 
land continued and developed; 29 the same was true of Sicily and 'Ifri- 
qua' (Tunisia) . Looking at the Mediterranean from the vantage point of 

26 Caskey 2004: 8. 27 Hodges and Whitehouse 1983. 

28 As has been discussed by the Belgian Henri Pirenne 1939, as well as by Hodges and 
Whitehouse 1983. 

29 See Constable 1994. 

Feudalism 77 

contemporary western Europe can seriously distort the picture as far as 
culture and history are concerned. We need to re-orient, as Frank has 
demanded/ since the east did not suffer to the same degree as the west. 
The continuation of economic, scientific, and urban culture in the east 
and south in the post-Roman period was critical much later in enabling 
western Europe to catch up after the collapse of Rome and the period 
of early 'feudalism', associated with the loss of trade and urban life and 
with the consequent stress on agriculture and the countryside. 

The role of the army also differed in the east and west. It was an impor- 
tant institution for maintaining law and order internally and for defence 
and conquest abroad, as well as providing a market for goods (such as sig- 
illata ware) and services. In contrast to the west, 'the East managed to sur- 
vive with its military institutions relatively intact'. 31 The army 'remained 
an institution under imperial authority, not an independent force capable 
of dictating to its nominal masters'. 32 The west on the other hand was 
dominated both by military force and by tribal bands. Inevitably local 
lords assumed military duties in relation to their territories and the inhab- 
itants, conditions that provided a baseline for feudal decentralization and 
military duties. Once again this form of social organization appears as a 
western reaction to decline rather than as a progressive stage in the march 
of civilization. 

Wickham's discussion of the shift from the ancient world to feudalism, 
for example, makes no reference to democracy, quite the opposite. The 
ancient is characterized by the strong central government of Rome with 
its large armies sustained by increasingly heavy taxation, larger than the 
rent people were paying. The objections to taxation encouraged farmers 
to place themselves under landowners, who took responsibility for tax 
as part of the rent. The landowners themselves were prepared to shift 
allegiance to Germanic regimes for tax reasons, the military was being 
organized on a local rather than a national basis so that, in the longer run, 
the hated taxation disappeared and rents and local services prevailed. But 
not immediately; the landowners were the first to make this move after 
568. 33 

The shift to feudalism 

There was no generalized transition from Antiquity to feudalism except 
in the west and in the minds of its scholars. In any case, even in the west 
feudalism did not appear immediately after the fall of Antiquity. In his 

30 Frank 1998. 31 Whitby 2000: 300. 32 Whitby 2000: 305. 
33 Wickham 1984:20. 

78 A socio-cultural genealogy 

account of the transition from Antiquity to feudalism, Anderson recog- 
nized the 'catastrophic' rather than the 'cumulative' events at the end of 
the ancient world. But the regression in Europe is seen as clearing the way 
'for the dynamic subsequent advance of the new mode of production born 
of their [Antiquity's] demolition'. 34 This new mode arose out of 'the con- 
catenation of Antiquity and feudalism'. He argued that it was the element 
of Antiquity that was absent in the nearest equivalent to feudalism out- 
side Europe, namely Japan, similar as it was in many other respects. 33 At 
the same time, he writes negatively about Roman agriculture and extends 
his comments to the whole economy, remarking on the gap between the 
intellectual and political achievements of the Greco-Roman world and 
'the cramped economic earth beneath it'. 36 Indeed its 'superstructural 
heritage' survived, in compromised form, through the Church which had 
helped to destroy the polity. The 'superstructural civilization of Antiquity 
remained superior to that of feudalism for a millennium - right down to 
the epoch that was consciously to call itself the Renaissance, to mark the 
intervening regression'. 37 He sees the endurance of the Church as bridg- 
ing this gap, for it became the custodian of literacy. Nevertheless it was 
literacy of a highly restricted kind, one that deliberately excluded much 
classical learning. 

So for Anderson it was not the 'superstructure' but the 'infrastruc- 
ture', the economy, that was seen as progressive in the medieval period. 
He writes of the contrast in the classical world between its static econ- 
omy (as compared with the dynamic basis of feudalism) and the 'cultural 
and superstructural vitality' of that world. At times Childe too tended to 
play down the Roman contribution arguing that it 'had not released any 
new productive forces'. 38 This view maintains that the widespread use 
of slaves in Roman agriculture inhibited advances in technology, since 
manpower was cheaper than machines. For Childe, slavery impeded 'the 
expansion of industry'. 39 Despite its emergence from a collapse in west- 
ern Europe, 'feudalism' is said to be progressive partly because of the 
idea, most strongly expressed by traditional Marxist historians, that 'the 
slave mode of production led to technical stagnation; there was no impe- 
tus to labour-saving improvements within it'. 40 These authors however 
chose to ignore the fact that the period saw many 'improvements', as 
a consequence of which certain statements about slave societies require 
modification. 41 Also, the slave mode of production does not automati- 
cally lead to economic stagnation; despite, or possibly because of the use 

34 Anderson 1974b: 418. 35 Anderson 1974b: 420. 36 Anderson 1974a: 136. 
37 Anderson 1974a: 137. 38 Childe 1964: 280. 39 Childe 1964: 209, 268. 
40 Anderson 1974a: 132-3. 41 White 1970. 

Feudalism 79 

of slaves, the agriculture of Roman villas produced a surplus not only 
to provide a high standard of luxury living for the upper class but also 
enough wine, for example, to be exported to other countries, together 
with pottery, textiles, and furniture. 

Improvements were not necessarily 'labour-saving' because, as 
Boserup has argued, 42 advances in technology may involve more work 
rather than less. If improvements mean that one can produce the same 
amount of goods with one slave rather than two, there must be an incen- 
tive for their adoption. In Sicily and in Carthaginian domains large estates 
worked by slaves or serfs were run on 'scientific capitalist lines'. 43 Indeed, 
all over Europe the Romans established 'capitalist forms'. 44 That is not a 
contradictory notion. In their analysis of the slave production of sugar in 
the Caribbean, Mintz and Wolf describe the innovative use of machinery 
as 'capitalism before capitalism'. 13 Getting rid of slave production was 
seen as one of the positive effects of the fall of the Roman Empire in the 
west, although slavery certainly did not disappear entirely. 'The notion 
of Antiquity is used only of Greece and Rome, as is the associated "slave 
mode of production'", 46 but in Europe some authors have seen slavery 
at least as continuing over a much longer period until 'feudalism' was 
eventually established. 47 Even later on Europe was heavily involved in 
the capture and sale of slaves to the Muslim world, which became one 
of its major exports. 48 Still for many authors, the slave mode of produc- 
tion disappeared with Antiquity, and from this perspective, feudalism, 
like Antiquity before it, is seen as a progressive step along the path to 
capitalism. However, that is not the only view of the medieval economy. 
'Considered economically', writes the historian of European agriculture 
Slicher van Bath, 49 'the manorial system was not very satisfactory. People 
produced little more than was needed for their own consumption, capital 
was not accumulated and there was almost no division of labour.' Initially 
at least, there was a decline in production, just as there was undoubtedly 
a decline in learning and in the 'superstructure' generally. The recovery 
was slow. 

There are more positive views of Roman agriculture than Anderson's, 
ones that necessarily modify the idea of a progressive leap to feudalism. 
Hopkins, 30 who offers qualified support to Finley's view of the Ancient 
economy, argues that total agricultural production rose with more land 
being brought under cultivation. In the heavier lands of the north, a much 
stronger plough was employed, drawn by a team of oxen and equipped 

42 Boserup 1970. 43 Childe 1964: 244. 44 Childe 1964: 276. 

45 Mintz and Wolf 1950. 46 Anderson 1974a: 47. 47 Bonnassie 1991. 

48 McCormick 2001. 49 Slicher van Bath 1963: 37. 50 Hopkins 1983: 70-1. 

80 A socio-cultural genealogy 

with an iron mould-board and coulter to turn over the soil instead of just 
scratching the surface as did the Mediterranean plough. Population too 
increased, and the number of inhabitants in towns where most craftsmen 
and petty traders lived. That increase entailed a growth in the demand 
for food as well as in the division of labour and in per capita productivity. 
Much of the latter had been achieved by the first century ce as the result 
of the diffusion of standards of productivity which had been established 
earlier in various parts of the eastern Mediterranean. It occurred because 
of advances 'in the wider use of iron tools, in some improvements in 
agricultural instruments (e.g. screw presses), and in the mere existence of 
agricultural handbooks, which were symptoms of attempts to rationalize 
the use of labour, particularly slave labour'. 51 

Outside agriculture there was also an increase in productivity since 
now muscle power 'was supplemented by levers, pulleys and ratchets, by 
fire, by water (for mills in late Antiquity and for mineral washing), by 
wind (for ship-sails not mills), and by technical competence'. There were 
'technical advances' in building (with the use of concrete for instance), 
in rotary mills and in methods of improving the air flow in iron smelting, 
as well as in transport, in larger units of production, bigger ships. In all 
these activities the use of iron, a cheaper metal, as ore was available almost 
everywhere, helped greatly in developing some forms of mechanization. 

It was not simply 'cultural superiority' in the limited sense of 'high 
culture' and the 'superstructure' that the Romans displayed, since they 
changed the face of much of Europe with their urban buildings, viaducts, 
hypocausts, theatres, and baths. They also created legal codes, literary 
works, educational establishments, and performances of various kinds. 
None of this would have been possible without a flourishing economy. It 
was one that employed slave labour very widely both in the rural sphere 
and for building these vast urban conglomerations - Rome itself, smaller 
provincial centres in Britain as well as magnificent towns like Palmyra 
and Apamea in Syria. All this is much more than the froth on a static 
infrastructure. And it surely makes the feudal period seem not so much 
dynamic (as some have claimed) as puny and marginal. 

However, the early Middle Ages did show some improvement in agri- 
culture. There were changes in the use of the plough, 32 but these were 
mainly extensions of earlier practice. In addition there were a number of 
inventions 'which were a great advance on the Roman era. Some of them 
were taken over from other parts of the world, but there were already 
signs of that technical sense which was later to be so characteristic of 
west European civilisation.' 33 No-one doubts the technical achievements 

51 Hopkins 1983: xvi. 52 Slicher van Bath 1963: 69. 53 Slicher van Bath 1963: 70. 

Feudalism 8 1 

of later Europe. But it is difficult to see how inventions adopted from 
abroad can be signs of a west European technical sense; that view rep- 
resents typical eurocentricism expressed in technological terms. 'We had 
it later, therefore we had it earlier', 'it' being a hypothetical technical 
'sense', an aspect of our inherited mental makeup. In fact, the advance 
of such imported technologies were surely a mark of the inventiveness 
of others, especially the Chinese. 34 The major inventions adopted at this 
time, according to Lynn White (1962), were the spur, the horseshoe, and 
the water-mill. The spur, primarily of military value, came to Europe by 
way of the Arab countries, like many improvements in horses and their 
management. The horseshoe arrived at the same time as the new harness 
(head-collar) in the ninth century, possibly from the Byzantine Empire, 
which improved horse traction just as the spur improved mobility. The 
water-mill, used for Chinese blast furnaces as early as 31 ce, appeared 
in Europe in late Roman times, drawing water from the aqueducts for 
the purpose of milling; it spread very slowly to Arabia in the fourth cen- 
tury, then into western Europe, reaching Britain in the eighth century. In 
Europe these machines were first used for grinding corn and only later 
for extracting oil, beating bark for tanneries, rolling metal, sawing timber, 
pulverizing dyes, and after the thirteenth century for paper. In English 
the word 'mill' became a general term for any mechanized plant, as in 
Blake's famous line, 'dark Satanic mills', where they are the icons of the 
Industrial Revolution. 

Despite these gains, civilization as a whole was in decline, as Anderson 
acknowledges. How long did it take for public theatres and baths to return 
to western Europe? How long before the educational system could hold 
up its head? How long before a sophisticated cuisine returned? How long 
before secular art and literature made a significant appearance? When 
all that eventually happened, we speak of a Renaissance, the rebirth of 
classical culture. But it was a long wait, punctuated by periodic revivals, 
as in the so-called 'renascences' of the Carolingian period and of the 
twelfth century. 

The Carolingian revival and the birth of feudalism 

The collapse of the Roman Empire did not lead automatically to the birth 
of 'feudalism', although some have seen feudalism foreshadowed in the 
self-enclosed estates of later Rome. 55 The characteristic feudalism of the 
Middle Ages in western Europe, held by many to be unique, was preceded 
by a Dark Age so that some see it as beginning only with the Carolingian 

54 Hobson 2004: 50ff. 55 Coulbourn 1956; Goody 1971. 

82 A socio-cultural genealogy 

state of the eighth and ninth centuries, which Anderson characterizes 
as 'a real administrative and cultural revival' throughout the west. But 
the main achievement of this era lay in 'the gradual emergence of the 
fundamental institutions of feudalism below the apparatus of imperial 
government'. 56 

The great estates of the Carolingian feudal rural economy, it is claimed, 
were a distinctive phenomenon 'that expressed and exacted economic 
dynamism', with peasant farming making a contribution in return for 
rents and labour. 37 It is on those great estates that 'the beginning of 
the European economy' has been traced. 38 Some of those estates were 
very large but rarely completely self-enclosed. So that, from the eighth 
to the tenth centuries there was already a general trend 'to monetize 
the dues of rural households' 39 and to participate in market operations. 
At the same time, some estates invested heavily in water-mills, although 
these were already more widespread in later Antiquity than had been 
thought. 60 After countless excavations, a variety of urban crafts has also 
been revealed on the estates. Some of them even had their own dependent 
traders, as a result of which commerce began to expand slowly, especially 
in the north, as did the population. 

Not only the 'causes' of feudalism, but even its timing and its distribu- 
tion is subject to much debate, which relates to the Carolingian period. 
The former obviously depends significantly on the latter, on whether 'it is 
a purely European phenomenon and when it appeared (or disappeared)'. 
In an important review of the final volume (xiv) of the Cambridge Ancient 
History, Fowden queries the advisability of the periodization that sees 
'Antiquity' in the west as ending in 600 ce, or worse with Constantine in 
3 1 as did the earlier edition. 61 The latter date neglects the fact that in the 
east the New Rome 'had an emperor as well as a bishop, and was to con- 
tinue in that happy state for another eight and a half centuries'. 62 Indeed 
the emperor Justinian (482-565) 'genuinely had a vision of a reunited 
Roman Empire'. So his successors looked to the east, especially after 
the Muslim invasions which cut communications with the west. Fowden 
insists that the spread of Islam has to be seen in the context of Judaism 
and Christianity as 'a fresh, clearer vision of the divine' that established 
a continuum from Afghanistan to Morocco, bringing together the south- 
ern, the eastern and the western parts of the Mediterranean. To adopt a 
date of 600 ce is to exclude any consideration of Islam which is then seen 

56 Anderson 1974a: 139. 57 McCormick 2001: 7. 58 McCormick 2001. 
59 McCormick 2001: 9. 60 McCormick 2001: 10. 61 Fowden 2002. 
62 Fowden 2002: 684. 

Feudalism 83 

as belonging to a quite different Asiatic world. That would be to overlook 
the continuities at all levels, so he concludes that a better marker for the 
shift would be 1000 ce. 

A tradition in French scholarship has followed a similar direction, con- 
centrating upon later political changes which have been viewed either 
as radical (that is, as a revolution) or as gradual (as a mutation). This 
tradition places 'feudalism' considerably later than even the Carolingian 
period, around 1000 ce. It has been described by some French histori- 
ans as 'a brutal rupture, a "social tempest'". 63 However, another group 
criticizes the whole notion of radical change, calling instead for a more 
sensitive, gradualist model. They reject the case for a particularly vio- 
lent period between the relatively stable governments before 1000 and 
after 1200, especially one that led to dramatic economic change, and 
claim there are no grounds for assuming that seigneurial violence was an 
instrument by which the ruling class established a new kind of servitude. 64 
Nevertheless for both groups, feudalism is still perceived as an essen- 
tial prelude to a European modernity. 'The feudalisation of the eleventh 
century is seen as a necessary precondition for the birth of the modern 
state.' 65 

A precursor, because modernity is not regarded as a characteristic of 
the earlier period. In the emergent 'feudal mode of production' it has been 
said that 'neither labour nor the products of labour were commodities'; 
the mode of production was dominated by land and by a natural econ- 
omy 66 Another author has written that 'The fall of the Roman Empire 
and the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages can be seen, from 
an economic point of view, as a relapse from a money to a natural econ- 
omy.' 6 ' However, he argues, the 'natural economy' eventually developed 
an urban aspect. 

What constitutes a 'natural economy' is far from obvious but it is clear 
that this account is oriented purely to western Europe, dependent on 
the collapse and return of towns (elsewhere, as we have seen, there was 
greater continuity) . In this view the east, whose history was deemed to be 
so different, would have had no Middle Ages (what would they have been 
middle between?) and no 'feudalism'; for towns continued to flourish as 
did manufacture and trade, although with some different emphases than 
in the west. That was true of the east of the Mediterranean too. Cities 
and even city-states continued to exist, in Syria for example through to 
the time of the Crusades. 68 Even in Italy 'the urban civilization of Late 

63 Barthelemy 1996: 197. 64 White 1996: 218. 65 Barthelemy 1996: 196. 
66 Anderson 1974a: 147. 67 Slicher van Bath 1963: 30. 68 Maalouf 1984. 

84 A socio-cultural genealogy 

Antiquity never wholly foundered, and municipal political organisation - 
blended with ecclesiastical power . . . flourished from the 10th century 
onwards'. 69 

One of the problems about defining change in social life in the very gen- 
eral terms of modes of production is that the latter are not only categorical 
in their definition but tend to get interpreted in a restricted way, based 
on a radical distinction between infrastructure and superstructure. But 
the 'infrastructure' is much affected by what goes on at another level, 
and developments in knowledge systems are often of profound impor- 
tance for the economy. In that sense they play a significant part in the 
infrastructure. In any case even agricultural production depends not only 
upon technology in a limited sense but also on transport (for example, 
on the construction of Roman roads), on techniques of plant breeding 
and dissemination, as well as on organization and personnel. 

Despite these justified queries about the nature of feudal developments, 
the broad course of human history has nevertheless been traced by west- 
ern scholars in terms of what happened in their part of Europe. Antiquity 
and feudalism are part of a unique causal chain leading to western cap- 
italism. Everything beyond, in Marx's phrase, was 'Asiatic exception- 
alism'. Looking at the situation from a broader world perspective, it 
is surely the west that was 'exceptional' at this period. It had suffered 
what all are agreed was a 'catastrophic collapse' that was only slowly 
overcome in many spheres. Like other authors such as Lynn White, the 
historian Anderson stresses the technical advances that were made in 
the medieval period, which he contrasts (questionably) with the 'static' 
economy not only in Asia but in Roman times. For example, he com- 
ments on the fact that while the Romans had taken over the water-mill 
from Palestine and thence from Asia, they did not make any general 
use of it (although there is new evidence of wider employment) . Water 
was an element that was only gradually harnessed over time in both 
east and west. The Romans certainly made significant moves along that 
path, with aqueducts, hypocausts, and complex systems of water sup- 
ply as at Apamea in Syria or the Pont du Gard in Provence. It seems 
a restricted view of the political economy to concentrate only on agri- 
cultural technology in a limited sense, in which in any case Rome was 
by no means static if one considers the introduction and extension of 
crops, the use of water-mills, and the overall success of their productive 

As for the progressive nature of European society during the feudal 
period, the productivity of western agriculture undoubtedly improved 

69 Anderson 1974a: 155. 

Feudalism 85 

over time but from a low point of departure. However, it was never 
remotely as productive as the irrigated agriculture of the Near East, nor 
of North Africa and Southern Spain, much less the Far East, 70 where 
'[b]y the thirteenth century China had thus become what was probably 
the most sophisticated agriculture in the world, India being the only con- 
ceivable rival'.' 1 Some have even spoken of 'a Green revolution' in the 
Middle Kingdom by the sixth century ce, others later.' 2 In Europe, agri- 
culture did improve between the eighth and twelfth centuries. But by how 
much? There is a radical difference of opinion between those like Ander- 
son and Hilton, who regard it as a highly 'progressive' development, and 
others who are less impressed with its achievements. 

Cavalry warfare 

In respect of the means of destruction rather than the means of pro- 
duction or of communication, the development of feudalism in Europe 
has also been linked to the advent of cavalry warfare. Horsed combat 
arrived much earlier than most historians recognize as feudal, for they are 
more concerned with a different set of political and economic changes. 
That form of combat, and its associated knights, was the result of interna- 
tional events. Europe underwent many challenges from its eastern steppe 
frontier between 370 and 1000 bce experiencing intense waves of Asian 
migration as the result of disturbances as far away as China. ' 4 The pene- 
tration of the Avars into the continent meant that a number of Germanic 
peoples were displaced into Italy, Spain, Gaul, and England, while Slavs 
occupied much of the Balkans. One of the responses of the rulers was 
military, the emergence of shock cavalry making use of the eastern stir- 
rup which enables the rider to fight in the saddle with lance or sword. 
Western historians often see this cavalry as the creation of Charles Mar- 
tel at the battle of Poitiers in 733, leading to a victory that they were 
convinced, by epic and by legend, had saved Europe from the heathen 
Muslims. In fact, for the Muslims that expedition was little more than 
a minor raid. 75 They themselves were much more concerned with their 
contemporary rebuff at Constantinople. In any case the essentials of the 
new military technology that supposedly saved Europe also came from the 

The stirrup was certainly known in China in the third century ce, where 
it was made of bronze and cast-iron. Mounted shock cavalry had been 

70 For the Islamic contribution to agriculture, see Watson 1983 and Glick 1996. 

71 Elvin 1973: 129. 72 Hobson 2004: 56. 73 White 1962; Goody 1971. 
74 Hobson 2004: 105. 75 Goody 2003b: 23-4. 

86 A socio-cultural genealogy 

used by the Persians and Byzantines as well as by Islamic armies, while 
'horsed soldiers firing arrows' appeared in the Near East many centuries 
before. All forms of specialist horsed warfare require a considerable out- 
lay on equipment 76 and it is suggested that the expensive obligation to 
provide shock cavalry lay at the basis of the feudal system. Horsed war- 
riors needed to recoup their expenses either from booty or from the local 
peasantry whom they could claim to defend. This expectation also existed 
among the horsemen of the ruling estate of the Gonja in West Africa but 
their domination was more limited since the recompense had to be in war 
booty rather than in peasant dues; indeed I argued against the identifi- 
cation with European 'feudalism' since production with the hand-held 
hoe, as distinct from the plough drawn by the ox or horse, produced little 
or no 'surplus' either for themselves or for their rulers. But there were 
nevertheless some comparisons to be made, in techniques, in support, 
and in attitudes. 

In sum, we do not have to accept the medieval period in Europe as 
a 'progressive' stage in evaluating the development of society, although 
much European thinking would wish us to do so. ' ' That number includes 
those subscribing to the five-stage theory of development of human soci- 
ety, the 'communal' or 'tribal', the Asiatic, the ancient, feudal, and bour- 
geois (capitalism), 78 stages that are seen as necessarily proceeding from 
one to another. The 'ancient stage' is 'a history of cities founded on . . . 
agriculture', in which a slave economy predominates, though it also had 
a few traders. But feudalism was a subsequent outcome of that situation 
though it hardly represents an advance of Europe over Asia. 

During the medieval period there were certainly improvements in the 
quality of life but to regard feudalism as progressive in comparison with 
the irrigated production, the continuing cities, and the developing cul- 
tures of the Near and Far East seems wide of the mark. Western advantage 
did not really manifest itself until after the Renaissance based upon the 
manufacturing and commercial achievements of Italian towns, primarily 
in textiles, for it was they who pointed the road in Europe to industrial 
capitalism and finance as well as signalling an advance in learning and in 
aesthetic pursuits. This advance rested on changes not only in the mode 
of production but also in the mode of communication, with the tardy 
arrival of the printing press and of paper, both eventually from China but 
now employed using an alphabetic script. 

76 Goody 1971: 47. 

77 In using the term 'progressive', I refer in this context essentially to technological progress, 
which as I have suggested is capable of some measurement. 

78 Hobsbawm 1964: 38. 

Feudalism 87 

The upswing of trade and of manufacture 

The work of historians of medicine has uncovered the first stage in 
the appropriation of the Arabic science by the Carolingian physicians 
of Europe, an acquisition that reflected the re-establishment of long- 
distance commerce in the Mediterranean and that affected more than 
the economy alone. This was part of a wider rebirth that has been called 
the Carolingian Renaissance and which involved not only an increase in 
learning and the construction of schools but also the development of trade 
and manufactures: 'a glance at silk imports makes the case in a way that 
affords sporadic but telling quantification'. 79 Trade really began to pick 
up in Europe with the reciprocal ventures with the Levant which started 
at the end of the eighth century but only reached a significant level by 
the tenth and eleventh 'through the quickening of trade between Venice 
and southern Italy on the one side and the Near Eastern countries on the 
other'. 80 Mediterranean trade with the west then opened up (it had con- 
tinued between eastern and north African ports), a renewal some have 
seen as the very 'origins' of capitalism. So it was, to a large extent - for the 
medieval west. For the expansion of trade meant re-establishing contacts 
with the great entrepots of the eastern Mediterranean, with Constantino- 
ple and Alexandria as well as with many smaller centres, none of which 
had suffered the same kind of collapse as the towns in the west and where 
a mercantile economy had long been established. Those contacts paved 
the way for the slow recuperation of Europe, bringing the benefit of luxu- 
ries as well as of more everyday products, of technological improvements, 
of classical scholarship, of literary and scholarly influences. 

Dependent traders worked for the large religious houses and great 
estates in the Carolingian period, and independent ones in the urban 
economy. So commerce led to the revival of many towns in Italy which 
provided an altogether different focus to the centre of the so-called 'natu- 
ral economy' in Carolingian Europe where feudalism is said to have devel- 
oped. The towns had significantly collapsed in western Europe, not in the 
east, and now, stimulated by eastern trade, they revived. Trade in Europe 
then started to pick up at the end of the eighth century, not only along 
the northern route in the Baltic, through Russia and to Iran, but even 
in the Mediterranean where spices (and medicines), incense, and silks 
began to be exchanged for wool, fur, tin, Frankish swords, but especially 
slaves. The latter became one of Europe's most important exports, con- 
tinuing down to the Turkish period. In this way, 'Europe's small worlds 
came to be linked to the greater worlds of the Muslim economies' 81 - 'the 

79 McCormick 2001:23. 80 Slicher van Bath 1963: 34. 81 McCormick 2001: 797. 

88 A socio-cultural genealogy 

rise - and economic consolidation - of Islam changed the nature of an 
emerging European economy'. 82 

In medieval England, overseas trade depended very much upon the 
production of wool and cloth and its export to Europe, where the great- 
est profits were not in manufacture but in the associated activities, long- 
distance trade and usury. The textile industry became of central impor- 
tance to the growth of the European economy and, most notably in the 
Renaissance, to the revival and expansion of its cultural activities that 
were based upon its success. First to be established was the local woollen 
industry. Silk followed, initially imported and later manufactured locally, 
and lastly cotton, again imported, then woven in Europe, and constitut- 
ing the very basis of the Industrial Revolution in England. In an earlier 
form of industrial production silk had spread from China to the Islamic 
world and taken root in weaving at Bursa in Turkey. There too, as in the 
west, Indian cotton was much appreciated and its bulk import gave rise 
to complaints, similar to those against silk, about the outflow of bullion 
required for its purchase. 83 For the eastern trade was not simply a mat- 
ter of 'peddlers' 84 as some have maintained, but of large-scale imports 
and exports, a major commercial undertaking. That massive importation 
eventually led to the local production of cotton both at Bursa and Aleppo, 
adapting imitations of Indian designs, as was done with the famous Iznik 
tiles in Turkey that copied the Chinese. 85 

Wool was first exported raw, later as cloth, and eventually played an 
important part in the trade with the Near East. Woollen textiles were the 
main growth sector in manufactures in the west, productivity in which 
'probably more than trebled with . . . the horizontal treadle loom'. 86 The 
production of cloth was greatly improved with this new loom, the earliest 
form of which appeared in Europe in the tenth century. This type had 
long been known in the east, from the Shang period in China. So too had 
complex reeling devices for thread that seem to have provided the basis 
much later for the water-driven silk-reeling machines of Lucca and then 
Bologna. 87 

The production of silk had undergone considerable development in 
China, well before mechanical processes had developed in Italy and later, 
with other textiles, in Britain. Elvin describes a large water-powered 
hemp-spinning machine which was based on one used in the North- 
ern Sung for reeling silk and spooled by a treadle, drawing a number of 
filaments from a tub of boiling water in which the cocoons of silkworms 

82 McCormick 2001: 718. 83 Inalcik 1994: 354-5. 84 Steensgaard 1973. 
85 Inalcik 1994: 354-5. 86 Anderson 1974a: 191. 
87 Elvin 1973:196; Poni 2001a andb. 

Feudalism 89 

were immersed. 88 In the thirteenth century this machine was adapted 
for hemp thread and driven by animals or water. Elvin compares it with 
the late seventeenth-century, early eighteenth-century, flax-and-silk spin- 
ning machines illustrated in Diderot's Encyclopedic, commenting that the 
resemblances are so striking that 'suspicions of an ultimate Chinese ori- 
gin, possibly via the Italian filatorium for spinning silk, are almost irre- 
sistible'. 89 In other words not only the production of silk but its mecha- 
nization began in China and fed into the manufacture of textiles in Europe 
which was characterized by a process of 'import substitution' for both silk 
and cotton. 

Developments in the textile industry were central to the revival of trade 
in Europe, both in the export of woollen cloth and in the import of silk, for 
which it was often exchanged in the Near East. The product of both was 
assisted by the move towards mechanization and even industrialization. 
In Europe the use of hydraulic machinery in the textile industry began 
in Italy in the wool-district of the Abruzzi in the tenth century where 
water was used to operate the large hammers for beating wool felt, 90 a 
process that also probably derived from China. 91 The town of Prato, adja- 
cent to Florence (their production was not always distinguished abroad), 
depended upon the development of Roman canals and mill ponds (gore) 
for the washing and processing of wool as well as for the hydraulically 
driven machines. 

The textile industry in Prato emerged in the twelfth century, based on 
the plentiful waters of the river Bisenzio. It was especially suitable as a 
place for finishing wool because of the availability of fuller's clay in the 
area. Early that century we find records of woollen cloth being dried along 
the ditches around the walls. In the twelfth century the development 
of manufacturing, which had taken place elsewhere in Eurasia, led to 
the shift from domestic to what is described as industrial production. 
The brisk trade in cloth meant that there were many money-changers 
in town although full banking activity was found only at the end of the 
century. By 1248 the wool merchants and pannaioli organized their own 
corporations, which included some immigrants from Lucca and from 
the wool-producing parts of Lombardy. 92 In 1281 a merchant of Prato 
was already trading in silk and ermine at Pera, the Frankish quarter of 
Constantinople organized by the Genoese, for the trade of wool and silk 
was central to European and Near Eastern exchanges. By the end of 
the twelfth century merchants were going to the Fairs of Champagne 

88 Elvin 1973: 195. 89 Elvin 1973: 198. 

90 See Duhamel de Monceau, II Lanaioli, 1776. 

91 Needham 2004: 223, referring to water-powered hammers. 92 Cardini 2000: 38. 

90 A socio-cultural genealogy 

and in the thirteenth to the papal court at Avignon. At the end of that 
century it was another merchant of Prato working as a tax collector for 
the French king who inspired Boccaccio to write the opening story of the 
Decameron (1358). 93 Banking and textiles were often closely associated, 
here as elsewhere, in India for example. 

By the thirteenth century, there were sixty-seven mills in Prato used 
for processing both grain and textiles. The great expansion of the man- 
ufacture of wool in that town is credited to Francesco di Marco Datini 
(1335-1410) whose statue stands in the centre of the square in front of 
the Town Hall. Datini left vast quantities of letters and account books 
that were discovered walled up in his house and provide an index of the 
extent of mercantile literacy. He had no children, so left his wealth to a 
foundation that took care of the poor. In his travels he went to Avignon 
when the Papal court (a great market for textiles) was established there 
and returned to build a factory dealing with every phase of production 
including dyeing. The development of the textile industry and the related 
commerce took place at the same time as that of book-keeping in Italy - 
the one needed the other. So Prato itself was populated by accountants, 
lawyers, and traders as well as by successful merchants like Datini. 

The wool merchants not only manufactured textiles but also dyed and 
finished wool and cloth bought in from elsewhere, from Lombardy and 
from England where the best quality wool was produced and where the 
activities of merchants and bankers working especially within the wool 
trade are reflected in the name of Lombard Street in the centre of the 
City of London. These were the earliest international bankers in that 
town. English wool fed into the continental trade and led to the consid- 
erable prosperity of East Anglia, with its fabulous 'wool churches' and 
the home of the wool-sack on which the Chancellor of Exchequer tradi- 
tionally sits. The wool was exported to Flanders, principally to Bruges, 
where it was used by Flemish weavers who enriched the town in build- 
ings and artistic activity, giving rise to the Flemish Renaissance in the 
fourteenth century. In Tuscany it was the trade in textiles that laid the 
foundations of the artistic triumphs of the Renaissance. These activities 
began with the painters (i primi lumi) of the late twelfth and thirteenth 
centuries, precisely the time when the wool trade in Prato got going and 
when European accountancy developed. The Medicis were themselves 
textile merchants as well as bankers with a residence in the wool district 
of Abruzzi near Aquila and had close connections with Prato where they 
built the church of Santa Maria delle Carceri next to the castle. 

93 See also I. Origo 1984 [1957] The Merchant of Prato: daily life in a medieval Italian city, 
Harmondsworth: Penguin. 

Feudalism 9 1 

What was critical in the revival of the medieval economy was exchange, 
including long-distance exchange, especially in the Mediterranean, which 
in turn stimulated production. 'The urban economy of the Middle Ages 
was throughout indissociable from maritime transport and exchange.' 94 
The Arabs had dominated the inland sea in the early years of their expan- 
sion. But it was partly cleared of Islamic fleets in the eleventh century, at 
about the time of the First Crusade and the opening up of the Atlantic 
route from the Mediterranean to the Channel by the Italian fleet. The 
advent of the Turks changed that situation and their navy became an 
important factor at least until their defeat at the battle of Lepanto (1571). 
But exchange remained critical for the renewal not only of the economy, 
but of knowledge and ideas. 

Other feudalisms? 

Preoccupied by the notion of feudalism, some European scholars have 
searched for its presence or indeed its absence around the rest of the 
world. Coulbourn has looked for it in Asia, especially Japan; 93 others 
have found it in the heart of Africa. 96 For these scholars, any vaguely 
decentralized regime was up for consideration (and most regimes display 
a measure of local autonomy as between the centre and the periphery) . 
More specifically, they have looked for military obligation attached to 
landholding. Again that was not too difficult to find. So in some cases 
the notion of feudalism became imposed upon non-European regimes 
as in Africa. 9 ' However, the search for universal feudalism is mistaken, 
for while the political conditions that are commonly regarded as feudal 
were widespread, European and Asian society was based upon plough 
agriculture which gave birth to a very different system of land tenure 
than in Africa. 

One problem with the wider, unrestricted view of feudalism is how to 
explain the apparently unique dynamism of the European theatre. 'No 
historian has yet claimed that industrial capitalism developed sponta- 
neously anywhere else except in Europe and its American extension.' 98 
This view holds that it is because of the earlier feudal social forma- 
tion that Europe gained its 'economic primacy' which led uniquely to 
the Industrial Revolution and the subsequent transformation of societies 
everywhere. The commitment to 'western exceptionalism', to the unique 
significance of the direct line of progression between Antiquity and capi- 
talism through feudalism slants history in a particular direction. We need 

94 Slicher van Bath 1963: 193. 95 Coulbourn 1956. 96 Rattray 1923. 
97 Goody 1971. 98 Anderson 1974a: 402. 

92 A socio-cultural genealogy 

to consider that the primacy of the nineteenth century (or earlier) does 
not necessarily go back in any causal way to the medieval period, to a 
unique feudalism. Indeed, how can the early uniqueness thesis be rec- 
onciled with the notions of Chinese scholars about 'shoots of capitalism' 
under what Elvin calls a manorial system (and Needham 'bureaucratic 
feudalism') or of the ideas of Nehru and others about India's route to 
capitalism having been inhibited by the colonial conquest? How can it 
be reconciled with the view of those scholars such as Pomeranz and Bray 
who see parts of China and 'Europe' as level-pegging economically and 
culturally until the end of the eighteenth century? 

Although we have discarded the idea of an African feudalism because of 
the great disparity in the productive systems, the situation in Asia, where 
these were societies with complex types of production, was different. The 
notion of 'sprouts of capitalism' in Asia has been proposed by some and 
vigorously denied by more orthodox eurocentrists. Marx's correspon- 
dent, the young Russian historian Kovalevsky, argued that feudalism of 
a kind arose in India, a proposition to which both Marx and Anderson 
objected suggesting that it neglected the different political and legal sit- 
uation in Europe. There is something to be said for both points of view. 
European feudalism was of course unique, as are all social formations; 
nevertheless the property relations in those different regimes do have 
something in common. This is a situation in which the constitution of 
a sociological grid would be useful, attempting to show which elements 
of 'feudalism' were present or absent in different regions. The critical 
question is whether any unique features in Europe contributed in a sig- 
nificant way to the emergence of industrial capitalism. That is assumed in 
many 'evolutionary' arguments of those supporting 'western exception- 
alism' but are these arguments based on anything more than temporal 

Most scholars see feudalism as a stage intrinsic to the development 
of capitalism and therefore confined to Europe. Anderson for example 
considers that nowhere outside that continent (except possibly in Japan) 
was there a feudal stage that could develop into capitalism. Feudalism in 
Europe did so since, as we have seen in discussing Antiquity, it was consid- 
ered to be partly based on the 'Germanic system' that was characterized 
by an aggregate of separate homesteads and therefore implied a greater 
potentiality for 'individualization' than the antique system in which indi- 
viduals were representatives of the Commonwealth, as in a corporation. 
The situation was similar in societies with intensive agriculture, living in 
tight settlements and participating in collective labour. Many thoughtful 
scholars have seen this vague attribute, individualism, as an essential fea- 
ture of entrepreneurial capitalism as opposed to earlier 'collectivism', and 

Feudalism 93 

as one of the crucial contributions made by feudalism to development of 
capitalism in Europe. It is a view we will later dispute. In Anderson's 
case the feudal mode of production is looked upon as emerging from 
the coming together of the inheritances of the earlier slave and the tribal 
modes - 'the combination of large-scale agrarian property controlled by 
an exploiting class, with small-scale production by a tied peasantry'. 99 
The former is thought to permit the growth of autonomous towns 'in the 
interstitial spaces' as well as a separate church and a system of estates, 100 
providing for the 'parcelization of sovereignty'. 

Thus the feudal outcome could only occur in the west of Europe. Not 
only Africa and Asia, but even eastern Europe all had different regimes. 
The situation was less clear-cut in Byzantium which was marked by the 
earlier contrast between the western and eastern parts of the Roman 
empire, the subsequent development of which was however seen by 
Anderson in the following terms: 'Late Byzantine feudal forms were the 
end-result of a secular decomposition of a united imperial policy' whereas 
western feudalism was 'a dynamic recomposition of two dissolved anterior 
modes of production [tribal and slave], in a new synthesis which was 
to unleash productive forces on an unprecedented scale'. 101 At best, he 
argues, the process in Byzantium 'released a certain intellectual effer- 
vescence' but commerce in the capital had been 'captured' by Italian 
merchants rather than by locals. In fact, however, commerce in Con- 
stantinople involved both locals and foreigners in its very nature (as in 
Venice or London), and that was even more true of Bursa and other cities 
in the Near East. 

Overall, Byzantium is considered economically stagnant in agriculture 
and manufacture (except for the introduction of some new crops and 
the wider use of the water-mill). However, one major breakthrough took 
place in Constantinople where 'state plants . . . enjoyed a monopoly role 
in the European export market until the ascent of the Italian mercan- 
tile towns', 102 which later appropriated much of the production of that 
region. Even the technique of processing silk in Turkey is said to have 
been 'purloined from the Orient rather than an indigenous discovery'. 
But what then constitutes a truly 'indigenous' discovery? Many basic 
inventions regarded as critical for the rise of the west, came from the 
Orient. The same could be claimed of the production of silk in Europe, a 
major economic factor in the Italian Renaissance. Silk-worms were said 
to have been smuggled to Byzantium from the east in the staves of Nesto- 
rian monks. Roger II of Sicily in turn kidnapped silk weavers from the 

99 Anderson 1974b: 408. 10 ° Anderson 1974b: 410. 101 Anderson 1974a: 282-3. 
102 Anderson 1974a: 275. 

94 A socio-cultural genealogy 

Byzantine towns of Thebes and Corinth in 1147. From there silk pro- 
duction spread to Lucca in northern Italy and that town again attempted 
to maintain a monopoly of the technology. However, its practices were 
taken by immigrant workers to Bologna where yet more complex tech- 
niques of mechanized silk-reeling were developed before they shifted yet 
further north. From there a critical part of the process of mechanization 
was pirated by an English silk merchant at the beginning of the Industrial 
Revolution in that country. When we are considering the characterization 
of Turkey as a backward Asiatic power, we have to recall the similarities 
(not identities) of the system of land tenure, whether or not designated 
feudal, and the active manufacturing and commercial sectors in its towns, 
especially in Europe and the Mediterranean. 

There seems to be widespread agreement that a partial exception to 
the claim that feudalism was absent in other parts of the world, even for 
many European historians, was the case of Japan; 103 one suspects that 
the perception of this particular pattern is a backward projection from 
Japan's early achievements in industrial capitalism (often seen as con- 
trasting with China's experience, a judgement that has turned out to be 
distinctively premature). Japan is claimed by Anderson to have devel- 
oped a similar system to Europe in the fourteenth to fifteenth centuries, 
although its estates differed in never having had a demesne or home- 
farm. However, he argues that Japan did not of itself produce capitalism 
which it is questionably said to have borrowed from Europe. Moreover 
its 'feudalism' did not provide the 'economic dynamic of the feudal mode 
of production in Europe which released the elements for primitive accu- 
mulation of capital on a continental scale', 104 preparing the way for the 
ascent of the bourgeoisie. Like Braudel, Anderson sees the full capitalist 
mode as being launched only by the arrival of the Industrial Revolution 
which was built upon a 'market-centred landlordism' and a bourgeoisie. 
Japan may have had feudalism but it never had Absolutism, which, in 
an original contribution to the debate, Anderson considers an essen- 
tial precursor to capitalism. Consequently he is critical of those scholars 
who follow the tendency of some writers and look upon the successive 
phases of socio-economic development as universal and so see feudalism 
as a world-wide phenomenon. 105 This view he understands as a reaction 
against assumptions of European superiority, but nevertheless insists on 
a narrower definition of the feudal mode of production as the combi- 
nation of large landownership, with 'judicial and constitutional systems 

103 On Japanese feudalism see also Bloch 1961:446. For him, feudalism is a type of society 
not confined to Europe - Japan passed through such a phase. 

104 Anderson 1974b: 414-15. 105 Anderson 1974b: 401. 

Feudalism 95 

becoming . . . external elaborations; the parcellized sovereignty, vassal 
hierarchy and fief system are irrelevant'. 

Wherein lay the supposedly unique characteristics of earlier Japan? Like 
Western Europe, it is claimed, feudal agriculture had generated 'remark- 
able levels of productivity'. 106 Agricultural productivity, however, was 
surely no greater than in other areas of monsoon Asia, such as Indonesia, 
South China, or South India. These regimes were also highly urbanized 
and displayed 'a pervasive market-oriented landlordism'. They traded 
vigorously with the west, especially in spices, and they had long been 
the centre of a complex system of exchange that included textiles from 
India as well as many 'cultural' imports, Sanskrit, Buddhism, Hinduism, 
temples and items of largely secular significance. Despite the levels of 
productivity attributed (uniquely) to Japan, the impetus to capitalism is 
said to have come 'from the outside', an opinion which ignores the fact 
that there were also indigenous developments, here as elsewhere in Asia, 
at least in mercantile capitalism. 

Anderson argues that Japan is the exception in Asia, in that it easily 
'adopted' capitalism. The argument remains highly eurocentric since it 
does not grant the east, even Japan, the possibility of developing capi- 
talism unless by borrowing from the west. One reason he gives for its 
incapacity to develop on its own is the absence of Antiquity. Japanese 
feudalism, Anderson suggests in his original contribution, was the result 
of the slow disintegration of 'a Sinified imperial system'. 10 ' What distin- 
guished Europe was not simply the disintegration of the Roman empire 
but 'the perdurable inheritance of classical Antiquity', 108 that is, 'the con- 
catenation of Antiquity and feudalism'. In Europe there persisted a 'rema- 
nence' of the earlier mode; the classical antecedence prepared the way. 
The rebirth of Antiquity eventually produced the Renaissance, 'the crux 
of European history'; for Japan 'nothing remotely comparable to the 
Renaissance touched its shores'. 109 There was obviously no need for a 
rebirth if there had been no death (or decline). Since neither 'feudalism' 
nor 'Antiquity' were to be found elsewhere, they could not have been 
linked (in concatenation) outside Europe. 

This claim founders upon an obvious problem: whilst for feudalism 
an attempt is made by historians, however unsatisfactory, to define its 
characteristics, 'Antiquity' is basically a historical period in which Greece 
and Rome were dominant, largely undefined economically, and was so 
specifically geographical that it even excluded major trading partners (and 
rivals), Carthage, the Near East, India, and Central Asia. 

106 Anderson 1974b: 418. 107 Anderson 1974b: 417. 108 Anderson 1974b: 420. 
109 Anderson 1974b: 416. 

96 A socio-cultural genealogy 

Nevertheless, Japan is often seen to provide a parallel to Europe, a 
view based not only upon the formal similarities between the two, but, 
more significantly, upon the outcome. 'Today, in the second half of the 
twentieth century, only one major region outside Europe, or its overseas 
settlements, has achieved an advanced industrial capitalism: Japan. The 
socio-economic preconditions of Japanese capitalism, as modern histori- 
cal research has amply demonstrated, lie deep in the Nipponic feudalism 
which so struck Marx and Europeans in the later nineteenth century.' 110 
Again, this is a highly teleological perspective. While that opinion may 
have been possible to sustain in 1 974, it was soon no longer adequate, and 
'modern historical research' has been found wanting. With the growth of 
the Four Little Tigers, especially Hong Kong, and now China itself, one 
must decouple the growth of capitalism from the pre-existence of feudal- 
ism in Asia (unless one takes the other and probably even less satisfactory 
tack of universalizing feudalism) . Economically Japan is no longer unique. 
With Braudel, I would argue that a decoupling between capitalism and 
feudalism was always necessary, just as we should also decouple the rela- 
tion between capitalism and industrialization, for industrialization has 
obviously characterized socialist regimes as well as capitalist ones. Both 
exist in a wider range of societies than is often supposed and have long 
done so. 

In Europe, the procession towards capitalism from feudalism started 
with what is seen as the very different evolution of cities under what 
Anderson calls parcellization (deemed 'irrelevant'); they had 'the munic- 
ipal legacy'. In the countryside it was the inheritance of Roman law that 
is claimed to have made possible the decisive advance from conditional 
to absolute private property; 111 the advent of capitalism is related to this 
'legal order', through 'a written civil law'. The revival of Roman law in 
Bologna was accompanied by 'the reappropriation of virtually the whole 
cultural inheritance of the classical world'. 112 Included in these devel- 
opments was said to be the institutionalization of diplomatic exchange 
(which seems a particularly eurocentric claim when looking at China and 
the Muslim world) and the emergence of a form of state, Absolutism, 
which did away with the parcellization of feudalism, and prepared the way 
for capitalism. Absolutism occurred at the time when commodity produc- 
tion and exchange developed, dissolving 'primary feudal relations in the 
countryside'. 113 But with centralization in Europe, supposedly absent in 
that form from other parts of the world, one also found the consolidation 

110 Anderson 1974b: 415. ul Anderson 1974b: 424. 112 Anderson 1974b: 426. 
113 Anderson 1974b: 429. 

Feudalism 97 

of absolute private property, another feature seen as a necessary precon- 
dition of capitalism. 

There are several problems with this account. Firstly, it is a legalis- 
tic interpretation that confines the nature of law to written law. Clearly 
all human groups have 'law' in a wider sense that includes customary 
'law'; so, too, all enter into 'diplomatic' relations with their neighbours 
and have some form of 'private property'. Secondly, German tribes were 
more likely to be members of corporate groups than Roman citizens; yet 
paradoxically such membership is supposedly the basis of the 'free labour' 
of capitalism. Thirdly, there is the ethnocentric treatment of 'individual- 
ism' pursued by so many European scholars. Many 'tribal' peoples have 
been shown to stress their existence as individuals, as for example in 
Evans-Pritchard's classical study of the Nuer of the Sudan. In any case, 
as I have argued elsewhere, the capitalist organization of work, in a factory 
for example, demands a greater suppression of individualistic tendencies 
than either hunting or farming. ' 14 The life of a solitary individual Robin- 
son Crusoe or of a settler on the frontier is not the normal experience for 
the majority of people, and more closely resembles the life of earlier forms 
of hunting and gathering societies rather than of later modes. Finally, 
this discussion of the contribution of feudalism to capitalism appears 
to neglect the role of the towns (which Marx recognizes as the nucleus 
of later developments), towns that grew within feudalism and gradually 
dominated rural-based relationships, but whose history goes back to the 
Bronze Age, and which were flourishing in post-Antiquity almost every- 
where outside of western Europe. Marx does consider the possibility of 
capitalism developing from Rome or Byzantium but argues that wealth 
from trade and usury was not as yet 'capital'. In fact investment took 
place in trade and manufacture, in the production of silk textiles as well 
as in the manufacture of paper and in agriculture. Trade and usury too 
were of course essential to later developments, as were the 'free' peas- 
antry and urban craft producers. It is the two latter that develop into the 
industrialized labour force. 

Feudalism is therefore seen as a decentralized polity that allowed for 
developments 'in the interstices' and that encouraged a modicum of free- 
dom. The east, beginning in the Near East, was thought to be marked by 
irrigated agriculture and by despotism, which were seen to go together 
in what was called the Asiatic mode of production', the problem with 
which we see in the following chapter. 'Despotic' systems were believed 
to be incapable of providing the background necessary for the growth of 

114 Goody 1996a. 

98 A socio-cultural genealogy 

capitalism (though 'Absolutism' apparently did) . But they were obviously 
quite compatible with the existence of towns, with large-scale manufac- 
ture (of silk textiles in Turkey for example or of cotton in India), even 
with a measure of mechanized production. They also conducted complex 
exchanges between Europe on the one hand and Asia on the other. How 
could other societies participate in this important exchange of goods and 
techniques if they had such different socio-economic bases? Were not 
the elements of capitalism distributed very much more widely than many 
scholars assume, as we will discuss with the work of Braudel? 

Asiatic despots and societies, in Turkey 
or elsewhere? 

In the later Middle Ages, the nearest major non-European, Asiatic power 
to Europe was Turkey. Since the fourteenth century her armies had been 
attacking existing European and Christian space, including Byzantium 
and the Balkans. Much earlier Europe had been invaded by Islam (the 
'Moors') from North Africa, in Spain, advancing into Sicily and into 
the Mediterranean generally. The Moors and the Turks had become the 
epitome of the non-European forces ranged against the continent and 
they were typically seen as despotic in character, as lacking the Christian 
virtues and marked by cruelty and barbarism: they were Muslim. 

In European eyes, Turkey was generally seen even by intellectuals as a 
despotism, especially after the seventeenth century. In The Prince, Machi- 
avelli described the subjects of the Porte as being ruled by one master, and 
as consisting of his slaves or servants. Some years later the French author, 
Bodin, 1 contrasted European monarchies with Asian despotisms unre- 
stricted in their dominion, a situation never to be tolerated in Europe. 2 
Others saw the critical difference between east and west as due to the 
absence of a hereditary nobility J or as the result of the lack of private prop- 
erty in Turkey, 4 both seen at the time as instruments for protecting man 
and his earthly goods. The French philosopher Montesquieu believed 
that under eastern systems assets were always liable to confiscation; 3 that 
insecurity was the epitome of Oriental despotism, opposed in principle 
to European feudalism, where a man's property was safe. 

Of course the notion of Turkish 'despotism' changed over time. In 
the early part of the sixteenth century, Ottoman institutions were com- 
pared favourably to those in the west by Venetian ambassadors. After 
1575 the relation is reversed. 6 'If the principles on which his power was 
based were at variance with those of the Venetian republic, the empire 
was nonetheless a construction of imposing beauty, an admirable order.' 7 
What reversed the situation? Matters had changed in Istanbul; there was 

'Bodin 1576. 2 Anderson 1974b: 398. 3 Bacon 1632. 4 Bernier 1658. 
5 Montesquieu 1748. 6 Valensi 1993: 71. 7 Valensi 1993: 98. 


100 A socio-cultural genealogy 

more 'tyranny'. The Atlantic powers had brought in an excess of Amer- 
ican bullion which had affected the economy. Lepanto had been a great 
military defeat. But above all, in Valensi's eyes, there had been a reinven- 
tion of Aristotle, or invention of the concept of the despot, 'the separation 
of Asia (or the Orient) from Europe: the concept of oriental despotism'. 8 
The spectre of pure power came to haunt Europe. 

So Turkey became the type case of Oriental despotism in the early 
modern period just as earlier in Antiquity Persia had done for Greece. 
As we have seen in chapter 2, Greek ethnocentric attitudes became inte- 
grated into western scholarly historiography and cultural analysis. The 
dichotomy they established between their own democratic systems and 
what they perceived as the despotic Persian 'other', merged with the 
later European opinion of the Turks to produce, in European thinking, 
a paradigm which was held to be characterized by what Marx desig- 
nated 'Asiatic exceptionalism'. However, all were heirs to the Bronze 
Age civilizations which stretched from the Fertile Crescent of the Near 
East right across Asia to China, and which were also the foundation of 
European developments beginning with Antiquity. So the implied oppo- 
sition between European and Asian societies is of little analytic value as 
far as the earlier history is concerned. During the opening years of the 
present era, for instance, there were two great empires in Eurasia, Rome 
in the west and China in the east. In terms of development, there was 
little to divide them. Both were built on Bronze Age economies and orga- 
nized themselves using literate knowledge systems and communication, 
in one case employing a form of the Phoenician alphabet, in the other 
an elaborate logographic script using 'characters'. In terms of knowledge 
systems, they were in many cases comparable, as Needham has shown 
with botany. 9 In the case of both Rome and China, economic and cul- 
tural achievements were built on analogous developments which began 
in the Bronze Age. However, whilst both Rome and China practised 
plough agriculture - a practice that was widespread in the cultures which 
emerged from the urban Bronze Age societies which stretched across 
Eurasia, in China geographic conditions favoured large-scale irrigation 
in the river valleys. This gave rise to the notion of Asiatic despotism, 
since central control was deemed to be necessary to the organization of 
such an enterprise. These developments comprised many craft activities 
involved in urban construction, manufacture, and exchange, including 

The urban revolution of the Bronze Age also produced more pro- 
nounced economic stratification since with the aid of animal traction, 

8 Valensi 1993: 98. 9 Needham 2004. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 101 

essential to that change, one man could farm a much greater area than 
with the hoe. That made differential ownership of greater significance, 
since with more land an individual could employ others as well as ani- 
mal energy to produce a surplus for the urban markets serving the non- 
farming population. Land became a value in quite a different way than 
under hoe farming. Throughout Eurasia, the economy of the major soci- 
eties was based not only on similar techniques of production but also on 
broadly similar labour practices, more servile with the slavery of the west, 
somewhat less so in the east. Later on, to bronze was added iron, a more 
'democratic' metal that was used both in peace for the plough and in 
war for weapons. Also involved in the social differentiation encouraged 
by agricultural practices was the exchange of natural and manufactured 
products, luxury items over long distances, but everyday over shorter 
ones, made easier by the use of wheeled vehicles as well as water trans- 
port. Writing was just one of the specialist activities that grew up under 
the 'Urban Revolution' which introduced what many have understood as 
'civilization' in what were huge conglomerations compared to earlier set- 
tlements. That situation led to 'cultural' as well as to politico-economic 
stratification throughout the major societies of Eurasia. The specific ways 
in which every society dealt with these emerging social divisions gave rise 
to a variety of political systems - and it is not my purpose to obliterate the 
difference in governance and organization between the various cultures. 
However, this variation took place within the broad framework that Eric 
Wolf termed 'the tributary state', more centralized in the east, less so in 
the west, 10 but without the violent dichotomies that the notion of a typical 
Asiatic despotism presupposes. 

A recent world history of the last millennium by Fernandez-Armesto 
does try to adjust the balance produced by earlier European accounts; in 
it, 'western supremacy' is seen as 'imperfect, precarious and short-lived'. 
Leadership was passed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, where it existed at 
the beginning of the millennium, and remained there much longer than 
Europeans have often supposed: 

During the eighteenth century, despite the long reach of some European empires, 
China's was by almost every standard still the fastest-growing empire in the world. 
It also looked like the homeland of a more 'modern' society ... a better edu- 
cated society, with over a million graduates; a more entrepreneurial society with 
bigger businesses and bigger clusters of mercantile and industrial capital than 
anywhere else; a more industrial society, with higher levels of production in more 
mechanised and specialised concentrations; a more urbanised society, with dense 
distribution of population in most areas; even for adult roles - a more egalitarian 

10 Wolf 1982. 

102 A socio-cultural genealogy 

society, in which the hereditary gentry shared privileges similar to those of their 
western counterparts, but had to defer to scholar-bureaucrats drawn from every 
level of society. 11 

A consideration of even a selection of those features leads not only to a 
revaluation of China's position in world history up until the eighteenth 
century, but certainly dismisses any notions of static oriental despotism. 

Indeed the whole idea of Asiatic despotism is grossly inadequate. The 
Great Learning of Confucius sheds an interesting light on the nature, at 
least the ideal nature, of the Chinese polity. Far from offering the typical 
picture of an Asiatic despotism, the argument runs that 'anyone who loses 
the support of the people loses the state'. 12 That support directly depends 
on the virtue of the ruler. The requirement to enlist the support of the 
people implies a kind of consultative process, certainly not an autocratic 
rule. The ruler must help his people to lead 'prosperous and happy lives', 
that is what the mandate of Heaven involves. 

It is, then, apparent that a binary opposition between Europe and 
despotic Asia is hasty and founded on ignorance or prejudice. In the 
remainder of this chapter we will further explore those issues that are per- 
ceived to distinguish the abnormal and tyrannical east from the healthily 
and democratically developing west, and analyse the validity of this dis- 
crimination by looking more closely at the recent paradigm of Asiatic 
exceptionalism, Turkey. 

I want to discuss three aspects of Ottoman society in order to query 
certain aspects of these eurocentric perceptions of Turkey and to reflect 
upon European notions of the periodization of history and historiography 
more generally. These are the adaptation of firearms as a case study which 
allows us to question the notion of 'Islamic conservatism', the organiza- 
tion of agriculture (and the idea of the 'peasant as slave'), and the level 
of trade, usually seen as state regulated (whilst I will argue that Turkey 
displayed a certain degree of mercantile capitalism) . 

The discussion will allow us to conclude that in these respects, as in 
matters of government, Turkey was more similar to Europe in the polity, 
in the economy, and in 'cultural' matters than has often been assumed. 
The armed forces readily adapted to guns and gunpowder, just as the 
military soon built up a naval force in the Mediterranean. Peasants held 
a similar status to those elsewhere and were not all slaves of the emperor. 
Most importantly the so-called despotic rule did encourage trade, includ- 
ing private enterprise, and encouraged the development of a mercantile 
economy especially in the trade in silk and paper (and their manufacture), 

11 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 245. 12 Confucius 1996: 46. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 103 

and spices. There was a vigorous development in all these spheres, which 
was in the end defeated not so much by internal blockages as by the shift of 
textile manufacture to Europe and to the opening of the sea routes by the 
Atlantic powers both to the east (for spices and textiles) and to the Amer- 
icas for bullion and agricultural products, thus marginalizing the earlier 
achievements of the Near East. Whilst most of this chapter is devoted 
to an analysis of Turkey, as one of the traditional extreme negatives on 
the scale of European values, in the concluding section of the chapter the 
discussion will move to the Far East - another type-cast 'antonym' of the 
dynamic, democratic west. Here we will look more deeply into the sim- 
ilarities, already announced in broad outline, between the two opposite 
sides of Eurasia. 

The Sultan's army 

The view of Turkey as a despotism goes hand in hand with the idea of 
'Islamic conservatism', for example regarding the Ottoman's supposed 
technological inferiority 13 associated with the eurocentric approaches of 
authors such as K. M. Setton, 14 E. L. Jones, 15 and P. Kennedy. 16 This 
entails their resistance to adopting technological innovations made by 
others and the tendency to subordinate all matters of advances in knowl- 
edge, as well as economic and social life, to ideologically determined 
rather than practical considerations, under the guidance of an autocratic 
dictate from the secular or religious authority, leaving no room for the 
personal initiative or the 'free will' which supposedly characterized the 
very different European situation. 

Whilst it was probably Europe which first adapted the use and devel- 
opment of firearms, the Ottomans, faced with an enemy using these 
weapons, soon followed. They did so rapidly, pragmatically and effec- 
tively, collecting the materials for guns and gunpowder, manufacturing 
their own weapons and organizing the very considerable productive effort 
and associated techniques, even changing the structure of the army. 

'The "discovery" of gunpowder, the appearance of firearms and espe- 
cially their employment in warfare' 17 was a feature of the late Middle 
Ages. Gunpowder had been made in China in the seventh or eighth cen- 
tury ce and according to Needham 'the "true" gun, hand-gun, or bom- 
bard . . . appeared in . . . about +1280'. 18 Within decades these weapons 
had reached both Islamdom and Christian Europe. It is not known pre- 
cisely how gunpowder and firearms reached Turkey. Gunpowder-based 

13 Agoston 2005: 6. 14 Setton 1991. 15 Jones 1987. 16 Kennedy 1989. 
17 Agoston 2005: 1. 18 Needham 1986b: 10. 

104 A socio-cultural genealogy 

devices are reported among the Mongols from the 1230s, 19 and from the 
middle of that century they were instrumental in introducing them to 
Iran, Iraq, and Syria; proper firearms were introduced late in the four- 
teenth century. Europe seems to have recognized very rapidly the value of 
the new weapons, and developed them in the form of cannons (the Chi- 
nese employed the first kind of cannon in the thirteenth century accord- 
ing to Needham 20 ). They were being used in sieges in the 1320s and 
1330s as well as on ships. By the middle of the century they were being 
used in Hungary and the Balkans, by the 1380s the Ottomans knew of the 
weapons. In the Ottoman conquest of Constantinopole in the 1450s, can- 
nons were employed. In the early fifteenth century they were installed on 
European ships in the Mediterranean, which enabled them to dominate 
at sea. 

The manufacture of cannons was a complicated task. The Ottomans 
used bronze, since they had access to supplies of copper: the other Euro- 
peans used mainly iron, which was less expensive but also heavier and 
more risky. Both bronze and iron required foundries with a complex 
division of labour and work organization. This was true throughout the 
Mediterranean. For the large Arsenal of Venice, Zan writes of an indus- 
trial plant employing a huge work force that upset the guild system. The 
Ottomans developed many foundries (tophane) throughout the realm, 
at Avlonya, Edirne, and other towns, including the Ottoman Imperial 
Foundry (Tophane-i Amire) in Istanbul. As in western Europe, ships 
with cannon were built at the Istanbul arsenal. 

'In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the Imperial Cannon 
Factory, Armory (Cebehaneni Anire), Gunpowder Works (Boruthane-i 
Amire) and Naval Arsenal (Tersane-i Amire) gave Istanbul what was 
probably the largest military-industrial complex in early modern Europe, 
rivaled only by the Venetian Arsenal.' 21 The Istanbul foundry produced 
up to 1,000 guns a year (usually fewer) and employed a varying number 
of workers, 62 cannon casters in 1695-96, with an array of other tech- 
nicians and between 40 and 200 day-labourers. 22 While the Ottomans 
made some very large cannon, used in sieges, they also produced other 
weapons. As Agoston has shown, the common European idea of their 
being unable to produce smaller ones by mass-production techniques 
is mistaken. While mass-production was perhaps a new technique in 
Turkey, so too it was in the west, though there are some precursors, 
characterizing all the new arsenals and foundries making ships and guns, 
and Turkey was not slow to adopt both techniques and labour practices, 
which have been defined as 'capitalist'. 

19 Agoston 2005: 15. 20 Needham 1986b: 4. 21 Agoston 2005: 178. 
22 Agoston 2005: 181. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 105 

So there was no question of Islamic technological conservatism. 
'When Ottoman technological receptivity was coupled with widespread 
mass-production capabilities and superior Ottoman logistics, the Sul- 
tan's armies gained clear firepower superiority over their immediate 
European opponents by the mid-fifteenth century.' 23 They were able 
to maintain their firepower and logistic superiority against the Aus- 
trian Habsburgs and Venetians until the very end of the seventeenth 

Neither can they be accused of 'organizational conservatism'. The 
Ottomans had a standing army in the form of the Janissaries long vefore 
the European powers. With Murad I (1362-89) the need for an indepen- 
dent army was recognized, 'a force that would stand above the various 
religious, cultural and ethnic groups'. 24 The Janissaries were recruited by 
the dev§irme (collection) system whereby Christian males between fifteen 
and twenty were periodically rounded up and Ottomanized. After train- 
ing they were paid by the Treasury and came under the direct command 
of the Sultan. Among their neighbours, the first standing army seems to 
have been that of the Austrian Habsburgs who only possessed permanent 
troups of any importance during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), that 
is, some 250 years later. 

Together with the larger cannon they produced, this development 
demonstrates that the Ottomans were innovative in military matters. The 
ease with which the Turks adapted to the requirements of their military 
situation, both technologically and in terms of organization, suggests a 
different dynamic in Turkish society than is generally envisaged by schol- 
ars committed to the notion of Asiatic exceptionalism and the uniqueness 
of Europe, at least with regard to the issues of conservatism and the tech- 
nological inferiority that is supposed to inhibit change. Those historians 
who recognize the achievements of Turkey in this field tend to insist 
that the technology was borrowed and was part of the foreign workforce. 
Attention has been called to the numbers of foreign workers employed in 
the armament industry and sometimes in the armed forces. In the Euro- 
pean view, Ottoman achievements have sometimes been interpreted in 
terms of 'dependency theory', which sees them as being unable to estab- 
lish an industry of mass-production on their own, as being a 'third-tier 
producer'. However, this does not constitute proof of Turkish wayward- 
ness or incapacity, as it was common practice for other powers to recruit 
abroad, especially German metal workers, as in the case of Spain. As 
for foreign members of the armed forces, think of Othello, the Moor of 
Venice, commanding the army in Cyprus, or the British Admiral Slade 
in the Turkish Navy. 23 So 'borrowings' were not a Turkish privilege, and 

23 Agoston 2005: 9. 24 Agoston 2005: 22. 25 Yalman 2001: 271. 

106 A socio-cultural genealogy 

Europeans were 'lenders' of workforce as well. Neither is this use of a 
workforce from other countries to be regarded as either conservative or 
inferior. To recognize the advantage of a new instrument or method - or 
workforce - and act upon it shows an adaptability totally at variance with 
common European notions of Asiatic inflexibility. They were not simply 
recipients of armaments (who was not?), but 'important participants in 
the dynamics of organized violence in the Euro-Asian theatre of war'. 26 
That is the correct way to think interactively of technology transfer and 
development, rather than simply in terms of who was first in developing an 
innovation, for example in industrial processing. Questions of superiority 
and inferiority then take on a different perspective. 

Peasants as slaves? 

One European argument has been that the workforce in Turkey was quite 
unlike that of the west, where slavery developed into feudal serfdom, 
because the peasantry always remained in a more servile state. But was 
that really the case? Were they capable of being bought and sold like 
chattels? Did they have no kinship rights? The Porte certainly had peri- 
ods of strong central rule but to see Turkish peasants as 'slaves' of the 
sultan is to take rhetoric for reality. In fact Ottoman agriculture was based 
on leasehold farms under what is known as the cift-hane system. That sys- 
tem of peasant family farms is analysed by the Turkish historian, Inalcik, 
in relation to Chayanov's work on Russia. 27 He makes the claim that it 
fits the same general frame as Europe. That type of family tenancy was as 
important as the guilds were for the Turkish towns. 28 Both were actively 
maintained by the state bureaucracy by means of systematic surveys. In 
other words, demographically, economically, socially, the systems were 
comparable. The household farm unit consisted of a married couple, a 
certain area of land (5-15 hectares), and a pair of oxen. The ideological 
insistence on the state ownership of land was largely a device to main- 
tain this system and to protect the peasant from division, incursion, or 
over-exploitation. State protection was also important since this holding 
constituted the basic fiscal unit. 

The state was very protective of its farmers and herders, if only for 
fiscal reasons, and that protection included asserting the general right 
to gain a living. Peasants and nomads could be settled on newly con- 
quered lands in return for various obligations. Since the state itself was 
unable to use all the 'feudal' labour services, it converted some into 
cash. Taxation was based upon the family farm ('a legally autonomous 

26 Agoston 2005: 12. 27 Chayanov 1966. 28 Inalcik 1994: 143. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 107 

unit') 29 which had marked the late Roman period and persisted after the 
decline of the Empire. The state's role was in fact little different from the 
eminent domain vested in the rulers of European societies, which enabled 
them to tax, conscript, and judge their subjects. The peasantry was both 
'dependent and free', like most tenants everywhere, protected by central 
government against incursions by landlords or tax collectors. 30 

Ottoman land tenure then is much more complex than is perceived by 
those who characterize Turkey as a despotic state in an Asiatic mould, a 
notion which was not at all confined to Marxist writers but represented a 
more general European view of the eastern 'other'. Since it was essentially 
a conquest state, it was the fact of conquest that established the overall 
rights in state land (miri), but there is disagreement as to whether those 
rights are vested in the umma, the community of the faithful, or in the sul- 
tan as its representative. Indeed, as we have seen, the conquerors left the 
indigenous peasant communities in place, simply acting as 'rent' gather- 
ers. 31 The state took over 'eminent domain' and since its programme of 
continuing conquest required an army, it needed the support of taxes on 
the land. 

'Land and the peasant may belong to the sultan', as a Persian say- 
ing declares. But the notion of the rights implied by the word 'belong' 
has to be very carefully understood. Indeed the Turkish civil law code 
was closely linked to Roman-Byzantine practices. 32 As in Roman Law, 
rights in land consisted of 'eminent domain' ('ownership'), possession, 
and usufruct, the two latter of which were fully entrusted to farmers in 
a variety of ways. Although it was not an easy transaction, under cer- 
tain circumstances state lands could be sold by peasants; in this event 
they needed to establish 'absolute ownership' under Islamic Law. 33 As in 
Europe, eminent domain meant only the ultimate right of legal control, 
but 'pure ownership' (mulk mahz) could be established by a subject and 
the peasant used this possibility to transfer lands to a religious foundation; 
in this context Inalcik employs the term freehold, though as everywhere 
this 'freedom' was subject to wider controls. 

The peasant could also use his rights for commercial purposes. In 
some cases, particularly from waqf, that is, endowed, and freehold land, 
'the peasants collected a large amount of surplus wheat which they sold 
for export to distant markets in the urban centres of the empire and in 
Europe'. 34 In other words they were connected to the market and the pro- 
duction of cash crops - cotton, sesame, flax, and rice. Private ownership 
rights of this kind were sanctioned by Islamic law, a fact that an Islamic 

29 Inalcik 1994: 174. 30 Inalcik 1994: 145. 31 Inalcik 1994: 104. 
32 Inalcik 1994: 105. 33 Inalcik 1994: 117. 34 Inalcik 1994: 126. 

108 A socio-cultural genealogy 

state could never ignore; the 'rule of law' covered property rights as well 
as many others. The tensions between the secular and religious author- 
ities meant that the rights of peasants - and those of craftsmen - were 
defended from too heavy impositions by either. Indeed in the Ottoman 
empire, as elsewhere, there was always a tension between the state and 
the church, between the authority of the sultan and that of the quadi, 
constituting a sort of 'parcellized sovereignty' that has been seen as a 
unique characteristic of European feudalism, as we discussed in a previ- 
ous chapter. 33 The interests of state and church were by no means always 
identical, in theory allowing for a similar room for manoeuvre in the town 
and the country, as has been claimed for Europe. 

Despite their materialist approach, many writers with a Marxist back- 
ground have concentrated on highly abstract rights (rather than practice), 
using the broad and exclusive categories of state ownership, communal 
or individual ownership. But as Henry Maine emphasized, in all societies 
we find a hierarchy of 'estates' in land, with some rights vested in the 
individual cultivator (or his household), some in wider groups of kith or 
kin, some in the local landlord, and some at a more inclusive political 
level. There are many variations in the rights vested at the different levels 
and it is an error to see all possible rights as located at one level only 
in any particular society. In the sphere of agriculture, where most indi- 
viduals made their living, there was considerable differentiation of rights 
related to the tools and methods of farming, most basically in whether 
dry or wet (irrigated) cultivation was practised, whether it was carried out 
with the plough or the hoe, or whether it was shifting or permanent in 
character; there were other differences that were more shaded. Secondly, 
there was differentiation with regard to rights in land. The complexity of 
Ottoman land-rights, and the superficiality of the earlier European view, 
are well brought out in a recent study of land ownership (the military 
'fief) in Islamic (Hanafite) jurisprudence in Egypt from the Mamluks to 
the Ottomans. 36 The 'hierarchy of rights', whilst differently distributed 
from Europe, appears at least equally complicated, both in practice and in 
the course of the changing debate conducted by lawyers, although there 
is little theorizing around these issues in the political ideology or specula- 
tions about their misty origin. J ' The debates took place around the nature 
of these rights and were undertaken by a highly sophisticated legal profes- 
sion. Their varied conclusions have of course had an influence on public 
affairs, especially when matters come to court, but part of the debate is 
an attempt to formulate in writing the existing complexities of social life 
in relation to property. It should be added that, unlike much European 

35 Inalcik 1994: 128. 36 Mundy 2004. 37 Mundy 2004: 143. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 109 

legal thinking, the advent of Islam and the change of regime did not wipe 
the slate clean of existing rights although it did do some reorganization, 
as undoubtedly happened in many other 'conquest' situations. 

Apart from peasant territories, grants of land were made to the mili- 
tary and to administrators in return for specific duties. It has been argued 
'convincingly' that since it was revocable, the Arabic term iqta should be 
translated as 'administrative grant' rather than fief. 38 But clearly the con- 
cepts are very close and like the Chinese system which has been described 
as manorial 39 (and as 'bureaucratic feudalism' by Needham) again need 
to be examined by means of a sociological 'grid' rather than on a present- 
absent basis starting from purely European experience. When this is done 
even notionally, the situation can be seen as much closer to Europe than 
many theories assume. Indeed, existing conditions in the Islamic Near 
East at the time of the Turkish advance have recently been compared to 
early Europe. At Saladin's death in 1 193, the regime resembled that of 'a 
monarchy bound by ties of lordship and clientage, dependent on dissolv- 
ing loyalties, threatened at a moment when the suzerain of subordinate 
lords is weak'. 40 

Agriculture could never have remained at a purely subsistence level; it 
had to produce a surplus. Istanbul was a huge town, larger than any in the 
rest of Europe, and its provisioning was of great concern to the Ottoman 
rulers, as it had been to its Christian and Roman predecessors. Most of the 
grain came from the area north of the Crimea where commercial farming 
developed on a huge scale, at one point providing corn for Venice too. 
But parts of the country produced cereals for the town while much of the 
area around the capital itself was devoted to livestock-raising and to the 
farming of fruit and vegetables. The peasants were never involved simply 
in subsistence production; trade and the market were always relevant. 
Istanbul was in a similar position to many of those towns on the northern 
shore of the Mediterranean under Roman rule, which was supplied under 
the system known as 'anona' (a form of 'dole'). In many ways, the towns 
were comparable to those to the west and the east; Turkey was part of the 
Mediterranean world but all large urban sites had the problem of supply, 
often from peasants. 


If agriculture were in a basically similar position to the rest of Europe, 
so too was the status of towns and of trade. Trade was both public and 

38 C. Cahen 1992, Mundy 2004: 147. 39 Elvin 1973: 235. 
40 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 90. 

110 A socio-cultural genealogy 

private, requiring a bourgeoisie which was not entirely under 'despotic' 
control, indeed that cast doubt on the notion of 'despotism'. The Roman 
and Byzantine empires had placed commerce, the circulation and sale of 
merchandise largely under state control; 41 the Ottomans followed suit. 
However, trade also involved partly independent merchants and a bour- 
geoisie, as well as government servants. The House of Mendes, run by 
Moroccan Jews expelled from Christian Spain, had a network of agents 
in the principal towns of Europe and 'controlled a large portion of inter- 
national commerce'. 42 'Every European country aspiring to mercantilist 
expansion, as a prerequisite for economic development, sought these eco- 
nomic privileges from the Sultan', that is, the trading privileges into the 
capital that following Venice the Italian cities had earlier enjoyed. 43 'The 
West depended, at least at the beginning, on supplies from or through 
the Ottoman Empire for its newly rising silk and cotton industries.' 44 
The battle of Lepanto in 1571 and the advent to the Mediterranean, in 
1580-90, of the Atlantic seafaring powers, the British and the Dutch, 
with their guns marked a turning point; the region was opened up to the 
new Levant companies of those nations. So the first successful charter 
companies in the west were the Levant companies, dealing with the Near 
East rather than with India and beyond, and were established well before 
the founding of the East Indian Company. 

During the sixteenth century 'the Ottoman empire played a determin- 
ing role in world trade'. 43 Istanbul was the meeting point of the north- 
south route to the Black Sea and Danubian ports, and the east-west 
route to India and the east. There was not only the western link to 
Venice and Genoa, but from 1400 a vertical north-south trade route 
through Damascus-Bursa-Akkerman-Lwow by which oriental goods 
reached Poland, Muscovy, and the Baltic countries; that path followed an 
earlier one from the Baltic to the Near East that marked the opening up of 
European trade in the Carolingian period. 46 Imports from the west were 
mainly woollen cloth (and bullion as always) which were exchanged for 
'oriental goods' including local products, silk, and carpets. It was mainly 
but not only in luxuries. Some Roman moralists had been very concerned 
about the loss of bullion to the east in return for those products. They 
saw the east as the home not so much of despotism as of luxury, an indul- 
gence in which would greatly affect the Roman military virtues. But the 
trade remained of great importance. 

41 Inalcik 1994: 198. 42 Inalcik 1994: 213. 

43 Braudel 1949. In Europe the history of Turkey had often been treated from a distinctly 
one-sided point of view. However Braudel's work on Philip II saw that Islamic empire as 
an intrinsic part of the Mediterranean world. 

44 Inalcik 1994: 3. 45 Inalcik 1994: 4. 46 McCormick 2001. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? Ill 

Trading operations covered both Europe and Asia. The Byzantine 
political and economic dominance of the Black Sea had collapsed by 
1204 when Venice became supreme on the Western Aegean and at Istan- 
bul while Genoa conquered the eastern Aegean and established colonies 
around the inland sea. Turkey later destroyed the Latin colonies in that 
region and restored the old Byzantine imperial tradition, controlling the 
sources of supply itself. For Mehmed the Conqueror was inspired by the 
idea of reviving the eastern Roman Empire and the Porte needed to take 
control of the Black Sea in order to provision Istanbul with wheat, meat, 
and salt. The trade of silk, cotton, and hemp of northern Turkey for the 
agricultural products of the northern Black Sea, meant that Asia Minor 
'industrialized' in these respects even before Western and Russian manu- 
factures had a chance to compete in the late eighteenth century. 47 There 
was also a very active presence of Turkey and Egypt (nominally at least 
under Turkish sovereignty for long periods) in the Indian Ocean. At one 
point the Turks tried to assist the Indonesian Muslim kingdom of Aceh as 
a trading partner with men and arms in order to resist the European navies 
then active in the region. Although it had started as a land-based power, 
on reaching the Mediterranean Turkey had shown great adaptability in 
creating a navy that for long dominated the sea. Then the opening of the 
American continent, bringing cheap silver, cotton, and sugar (the latter 
previously available only through trade with Islam), changed the whole 
balance of opportunity. 

The silk industry 

Trade encouraged one particular sphere of manufacture, virtually an 
industry, in which Turkey became the dominant player and which greatly 
affected the rise of the west, of Italy in the first place. That was silk. 

Raw silk first reached Byzantium from China by way of Persian inter- 
mediaries, either by the land route or through the Indian Ocean. The 
Emperor Justinian tried to break this Persian monopoly, especially after 
the Mongols had intercepted the direct route, by seeking alternatives - in 
the south from Ethiopian merchants of Aksum, in the north from among 
people in the Crimea and the Caucasian kingdom of Lazica as well as from 
the Turks of the steppes. Silk became the 'commodity of prime interest'. 
Some time before 561, Justinian's agents smuggled silkworms into Con- 
stantinople, leading to the establishment of a complete silk industry that 
was intended to liberate the country from dependency on the east and 

47 Inalcik 1994:275. 

112 A socio-cultural genealogy 

in fact became 'one of medieval Byzantium's most important economic 

Silk cloth had also made its way from China to Europe as early as 
the sixth century bce. With the opening of the Silk Road in the sec- 
ond century bce, the material arrived in larger quantities. After 114 bce 
'a dozen caravans a year loaded with siks crossed the deserts of central 
Asia from China'. 48 Syria, Palestine, and Egypt imported both raw silk 
and fabrics and a silk-weaving industry eventually began to flourish. By 
the fourth century ce its manufacture had spread to Persia and then to 
Byzantium, an industry that was inherited and developed by the Turks. 
Silk was introduced into the Islamic part of Spain during the rule of 
the emir Abd al-Rahman II (755-788) of Cordoba at a time when he 
adopted the title of Ummayad Khalif. He took on the monopoly of mint- 
ing money and, following the Abbasid and Byzantine examples, organized 
the royal manufacture of luxury textiles. Mulberry trees, silkworms, and 
Syrian weavers were introduced and silk workshops were set up near the 
alcazar in Cordoba as well as in Seville and Almeria. Like the techniques, 
many of the motifs came from the Near East, some of Persian (Sassanid) 



Indeed silk 'formed the structural basis for the development of the 
Ottoman and Iranian economies'. 30 In this process Bursa became 'a 
world market' by the fourteenth century, with many western merchants 
using the ports of Ephesus and Antalya. However, the Genoese in Pera- 
Constantinople traded directly with Bursa, which was under Ottoman 
rule at the time. Genoese merchants even travelled inland to buy directly 
in the towns of Tabriz and Azov. Silk demonstrates the close links between 
the manufacturers and merchants of Europe and the Near East, especially 
Turkey. At first silk cloth arrives from the east as a luxury product, then 
Europe imports raw silk and makes its own cloth, finally it takes over 
the whole production process, including the cultivation of silkworms and 
mulberry trees. That process shows the way the regions are interlocked, 
and the process by which ideas and techniques are transferred between 
one area and another. We need to look at Eurasia not so much in terms of 
dichotomies and barriers between Asian and European systems, whether 
on the political level (despots) or any other, but rather in terms of the 
gradual flow of goods and information across the landmass. Far from 
initiating the early phases of mechanization, large-scale production, and 
marketing of textiles that began in the east, including Turkey, silk was 
only later developed in Europe; in any case its production was a matter 
of import substitution. 'Along with the highly developed native woollen 

48 Childe 1964: 249. 49 Reynal 1995. 50 Inalcik 1994: 219. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 113 

industries, silk became the principal source of international exchange and 
wealth for Western countries from the thirteenth to the eighteenth cen- 
turies.' 31 Fashion, it has been argued, 32 was the wheel of the expanding 
economy and the use of silk cloth among the elites, increasingly following 
the Crusades, gave rise to a flourishing luxury industry. 

Apart from Spain, silk was gradually produced in Europe. In Italy 
Salerno was using raw silk in the ninth century and in the Po Valley 
by the tenth, acquiring the techniques from Greece and the Near East, 
that is well before Roger II of Sicily was bringing in silk workers from 
Greece. However, the real breakthrough came in the towns of northern 
Italy, an expansion that may have been encouraged by difficulties with 
the supply of silk cloth from the Near East as the result of the Mongol 
invasions and other disturbances. Silk weaving took place in the town 
of Lucca as early as in the thirteenth century, many weavers having fled 
from Sicily after the French conquest in 1 266. 33 They began by using raw 
silk imported through Genoa from the Caspian area, from Persia, Syria, 
and 'Romania', a trade that was certainly stimulated by the burgeoning 
commerce with the east. 34 Silk cloth was of course aimed at the luxury 
market, at the courts of princes, rich abbeys, and great cathedrals, and 
eventually successful merchants. An attempt was made to limit the con- 
sumption of this material by sumptuary legislation to the court and to 
certain elite categories, but eventually these restrictions collapsed. Trade 
inevitably expanded. The merchants sold their cloth at the fairs of Cham- 
pagne and from the end of the twelfth century in Paris, Bruges, and Lon- 
don. 35 Supply and demand increased. Their manufacturing success was 
copied in Bologna and Venice, although Florence continued to specialize 
mainly in woollen cloth, especially made with English wool, becoming 
probably the most important industrial city in Europe in the fourteenth 
century. 36 

There is therefore an interesting progression in the manufacture of 
textiles in the east and west. Mechanization was initially a slow process 
but one in which the efficiency of looms was gradually improved, not 
everywhere at once but often stimulated by changes elsewhere as the 
result of communication. That process developed further in China with 
the use of water power to drive machines for twisting thread, a process 
that later got taken up in Europe. So too did the production of raw silk 

51 Inalcik 1994: 218. 52 Reflecting the thesis of the German economist Sombart. 

53 Some sources place silk weaving in Lucca already in the eleventh century. 

54 Arizzoli-Clemental 1996. 

55 E. de Roover did some of her research for La Sete Lucchesi (1993) in St Paul's Cathedral, 
Tognetti 2002: 12. 


114 A socio-cultural genealogy 

itself. By then Turkey, erstwhile a major player in the manufacture and 
trade of silk, had handed over its primacy to Europe - which it resembled 
in terms of the organization of its commercial enterprise to such an extent 
that any stark contrasts between the two are misplaced. 

The spice trade 

It was not only in the manufacture of silk and its exchange (mainly for 
bullion) that Turkey and the other Islamic countries around the Mediter- 
rranean displayed mercantile activity of the kind that is associated with 
mercantile capitalism, and which involved a certain degree of private 
enterprise and initiative, a response to market demands, and the combi- 
nation of manufacture and trade. Apart from silk, trade was also affected 
by the other shift occurring in the spice trade that had also spurred Por- 
tuguese, Dutch, and English colonization in the east. Earlier Turkey, like 
the Near East more generally, had again been an important player. Writ- 
ing of that country, Kellenbenz claims that 'the capitalist spirit found in 
the commerce in pepper one of its most important fields of activities'. 57 
This commerce was largely in the hands of individual merchants who 
frequented the great khans and caravanserai scattered throughout the 
territory; it was a trade that involved capitalist enterprise in the same way 
as European traders. 

Spices had already reached Europe from the east in the classical period 
and it was a highly significant factor in exchange in the Near East, in 
India and in China over a long period. Local pepper formed an impor- 
tant part of the diet in Black Africa but in the Mediterranean region it 
had to be imported from the east, a commerce in which local merchants 
were heavily involved from early times. As with the silk trade, the Turks 
took over the well-established Byzantine commercial traditions after they 
conquered Constantinople. Earlier, Islam had spread to South-East Asia, 
to Malaysia and Indonesia and its traders remained active even after the 
Portuguese opened up the sea route to Western Europe, with their first 
cargo of spices arriving in Lisbon in 1501. However, ships from India 
and Aceh in Sumatra, mainly belonging to Muslims, continued to sup- 
ply the Red Sea despite Portuguese opposition. Then Muslim ships took 
their cargos through to the Persian Gulf where in 1546 the Ottomans 
had established a base at Basra. So there was never any complete diver- 
sion of the spice trade; the Ottomans continued to have direct links with 
the Islamic kingdom of Aceh, which they tried to support politically 

57 H. Kellenbenz, 'Le commerce du poivre des Fugger et le marche international du poivre', 
Annates: Economies, Societes, Civilisations, XI (1), 1956: 27, quoted in Inalcik 1994: 344. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 115 

and militarily; Venice continued to be the recipient of some eastern 

With the coming of the English and Dutch to the Indian Ocean and 
with the loss by the Portuguese in 1 622 of the port of Hormuz that con- 
trolled the Gulf, there was an enormous expansion of the trade with the 
Atlantic powers. In addition, the result was that there was a fundamental 
geo-political shift to the Atlantic with the development of trade with the 
Americas, the substitution by colonial production - sugar, tobacco, cof- 
fee, and cottons, all brought in from the Americas. 58 It was Venice and 
the Ottomans that suffered from this diversion from the eastern Mediter- 
ranean when the Atlantic economy took off. 

Sugar was an epitome of this shift in production and trade. It was one of 
the most important 'spices', the production of which had been brought 
from South Asia to Persia and then by Arabs to the eastern shores of 
the Mediterranean. The Turks were heavily involved, so too were Chris- 
tian kingdoms under the Crusaders. The organization of work retained 
significant aspects throughout. 'Estates growing sugar cane, remarkably 
similar to the later plantations of the Americas, emerged in the Crusader 
kingdoms of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Palestine. By the fourteenth 
century, Cyprus had become a major producer.' 39 These estates were 
created by the Hospitalers and by Catalan and Venetian families who 
employed Syrian and Arab slaves as well as local peasants. The labour 
force was mixed. Sugar spread westwards to Crete, North Africa and to 
Sicily where it flourished even after the Norman invasion of the twelfth 
century. Since the Moorish conquest many centuries earlier the crop had 
also been cultivated in the Iberian peninsula, based on the use of Christian 
and Muslim slaves, and the sugar was marketed throughout Europe, fre- 
quently by Italian (Genoese) merchants. In the fifteenth century slaves 
were imported from Black Africa, which the Portuguese were actively 
exploring at the time. From the Algarve, sugar production and its related 
organization moved to Madeira and other Atlantic Islands, and later to 
colonial America. 

Production in the Mediterranean had been improved by the use of a 
millstone for crushing the cane. The industry gradually became more 
mechanized. Somewhere in that region or on the Atlantic Islands, a new 
system developed consisting of two rollers cogged together; the cane no 
longer had to be cut up and more juice was extracted. It was in the 
Canary Islands that a complex sugar industry developed which has been 
described as 'capitalist' (again under Genoese management), 60 and cer- 
tainly substantial capital was required for the engenhos, the machines that 

58 Inalcik 1994: 353. 59 Schwartz 1985: 3. 60 Schwartz 1985. 

116 A socio-cultural genealogy 

were used to crush the cane. Traders became producers, investing capi- 
tal and employing machinery, in ways that became increasingly complex. 
The whole enterprise was highly market-oriented from the beginning, but 
now the produce was exported to northern Europe. In the West African 
island of Sao Tome conditions were particularly favourable for the large- 
scale acquisition of African slaves and therefore to the growth of the kind 
of enterprise that eventually formed the model for the industry in Brazil. 
The latter began as early as 1516, even before an organized government 
was established there in 1533, a third of a century after Cabral's dis- 
covery of that vast region. In South America these enterprises employed 
considerable numbers of European craftsmen as well as Indian and later 
black slaves. Consequently the structure of society, based from the begin- 
ning on commercial agriculture, was mixed both ethnically and profes- 
sionally, providing a model for mechanized capitalist enterprise in other 

In the course of time Turkey became unable to compete with the west in 
its production of a range of cheap goods, cotton, woollens, steel, mining; 
its earlier hold on the preparation of sugar was broken by the migration 
of cane to the Canaries and to Brazil, so that the refineries in Cyprus and 
Egypt were forced to close, the technology now being taken up in the 
Atlantic and producing what Mintz and Wolf called 'capitalism before 

A static society? 

These manufacturing and trading activities suggest that Turkey can 
hardly be regarded as the 'static economy' which is supposed to char- 
acterize despotic states. The same holds for the society as a whole. This 
alleged inflexibility has been attributed not only to its assumed despotic 
character but also to Islam; the oft-cited example is the rejection of the 
printing press that had been used in China for many centuries. On the 
contrary, I have argued, the society was open to many influences and 
many changes. The restriction regarding the printing press (and perhaps 
other innovations, such as the clock) has nothing to do with a reluctance 
to change. Rather, it has primarily to do with religious beliefs and as such 
quite specific. Due to the wrongful generalization on the basis of what are 
specific solutions to specific problems, the question often arises as to why 
the Islamic world appears to have been willing to hold on to these beliefs 
longer than either Christianity or Judaism, which appears to be the case. 
The establishment of an independent secular power was slower. It has 
sometimes been said that in contrast to other religions, particularly Islam, 
Christianity allowed for secularism, a thesis that has been maintained by 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 117 

Bernard Lewis: 'Secularism in the modern political meaning - the idea 
that religious and political authority, church and state are different and 
can or should be separated - is, in a profound sense, Christian.' 61 That 
assessment seems to me unsustainable. It is true that Christ told his fol- 
lowers 'to render under Caesar' what was his, emphasizing the distinction 
between church and state. But that distinction became less clear-cut with 
the establishment later in Europe of the Holy Roman Empire, with rulers 
claiming to be defenders of the faith. Religion dominated most areas 
of life in medieval Europe. There were counter-currents of scepticism, 
even agnosticism, that ran through this, as through other religions. But in 
general secular thinking was post- Renaissance, even post-Enlightenment, 
when it achieved a more permanent status. That constituted an important 
development. Even later, the old ways persisted in some respects in places 
like the South of the USA, despite its modern economy, not to speak of 
orthodox Jewish communities in various parts of the world. Islam dif- 
fers only in degree and timing. Moreover, it too experienced periods of 
humanism when secular learning flourished. There seems little general 
difference in these religions until the Renaissance. 

What a brief examination of the Turkish situation, focusing on gov- 
ernment, the peasantry, and trade, emphasizes, is that it is an error to 
concentrate the analysis on one particular aspect of the regime, espe- 
cially when the argument depends upon seeking out differences. The 
search for difference is of course important when trying to account for 
'modernization'. Europe did develop a very advanced knowledge sys- 
tem after the advent of printing and an equally strong economy after the 
Industrial Revolution, having achieved a certain advantage in guns and 
sails somewhat before that time (though the extent of this advantage has 
been queried). 62 But to link this achievement to political systems (Euro- 
pean democracy versus 'Asiatic despotisms'), to differences in land tenure 
('absence of feudalism') or to the legal system (supposedly no tradition of 
Roman Law in the case of Turkey) is to project the present back into the 
past in an unacceptable manner and to engage in a front-to-back reading 
of history. 

In any case, as far as the production of knowledge was concerned, the 
Islamic world held a distinct advantage until the coming of the printing 
press. The manufacturing and exchange economy was equally developed, 
with the Near East being the centre for silk textiles and other luxury 
products. These developments were not greatly inhibited by supposedly 
'despotic' regimes or features such as the claimed absence of law, of 
independent towns, or of freedom! Towns were inherited from the ancient 

61 Lewis 2002: 107. 62 Hobson 2004: 189. 

118 A socio-cultural genealogy 

world and developed guilds, markets, and charitable foundations (zuaqf), 
as in the west. Islamic law had its base in Roman jurisprudence and in the 
post-Judaic codes of the Near East. Legal discussions reached a similar 
kind of complexity to those in Europe. 63 The activities of both peasants 
and merchants received legal protection from the courts in which women 
could appear as plaintiffs. The notion of Asiatic despotism is revealed as 
a way that Europe denied those states legitimacy, first in Ancient Greece 
and subsequently in the scholarship of post-Renaissance times. It is a 
concept that needs to be abandoned. 

The Ottoman empire, which lay at the centre of these developments, 
was no static Oriental despotism from the economic point of view. 'By any 
standards, [it] remained highly dynamic until well into the seventeenth 
century.' 64 The same author remarks that 'the Ottoman state from the 
fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries could outstrip in efficiency and 
match for adaptability its western competitors, many of whose traditions 
it shared'. 63 The shared traditions were important; Turkey was not sim- 
ply some Oriental other, either in the economy or the polity. 'In the six- 
teenth century, Turkish political thought kept pace with developments in 
western Christendom. The great Ebu us-Sud produced a justification of 
absolutism that revealed a thorough command of Roman law.' 66 Turkey 
is described as 'a state of extraordinary resilience'; only 'the treacherous 
hindsight' of historians 'has foreshadowed its early decline'. Adaptability 
was equally to the fore. The Turks, dependent at first on horsed cavalry, 
became a very significant naval power on reaching the Mediterranean; 
their engineers developed 'a quick grasp of gunnery'. The author goes on 
to praise 'the far-sightedness of Istanbul in relation to the adaptation of 
maps'; it was interested in the world-wide discoveries of Columbus and 
others, which in the end so strongly affected their situation. 67 

Cultural similarities in east and west 

While Turkey was the nearest non-European (Asiatic) state, the main tar- 
get of post-Enlightenment criticism was China. In the eyes of many Euro- 
peans, that huge country was destined to remain 'traditional', 'static', 
'despotic', even backward. In earlier publications I have attempted to 
show on the contrary that in many ways the culture of China ran a roughly 
parallel course to the European one. 68 I began with the family and mar- 
riage, arguing that firstly the demographic figures gave little evidence of 

63 Mundy 2004. 64 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 220. 

65 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 222. 66 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 223. 

67 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 219. 68 Goody 1982, 1993, 1996a. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 119 

a non-European pattern as far as household size (MHS) was concerned 
and that this fact was connected with a measure of 'individualization' of 
the conjugal pair. 69 That occurred in dowry systems where parental prop- 
erty was transmitted to daughters as well as to sons at their marriage or 
later by inheritance, giving rise to the features of 'the woman's property 
complex' (endogamy in marriage, particular strategies of management 
and of heirship such as adoption and woman-centred unions, etc.)- Such 
a system seemed to characterize all the major post-Bronze Age societies of 
Eurasia. Their advanced agricultures entailed marked economic stratifi- 
cation ('classes') under which such transfers obviously varied and parents 
attempted to maintain or improve the position of their daughters as well 
as their sons after marriage. The entire sibling group received parental 
property, though not equally. To make the point about the convergence 
between Europe and Asia, we can contrast that situation with the one 
prevailing in sub-Saharan Africa under hoe cultivation where economic 
and social differences of this kind were minimal and did not affect who 
one married (or the size of marriage payments) except perhaps in the case 
of some traders. 70 

There were similar parallels in other 'cultural' matters which suggest 
convergence rather than divergence. Similarities between east and west 
suggest that the divergence which historians have made with the notion of 
both Antiquity and the subsequent isnad, or genealogy, to western cap- 
italism, leaving as marginal a 'despotic', even backward, Asia, is quite 
inadequate to account for the levels of complexity. I have argued that 
in Europe elaborate culinary practices, known as 'haute cuisine', could 
be distinguished from more simple stratified forms of cooking and those 
again from the broadly undifferentiated cooking that was found even in 
politically stratified societies in Africa, where among other things the agri- 
cultural economy could not sustain such differences. 71 Simple stratified 
cooking accompanied all the major post-Bronze Age societies of Eurasia 
but in some of these we find the further development of an haute cui- 
sine in which connoisseurship played a prominent part in court circles 
and among elite groups, including merchants and the haute bourgeoisie. 
Hautes cuisines of this kind were to be found in China,' 2 in India, in 
the Near East, 73 as well as in classical and modern Europe. 74 While this 
may appear to be a superficial matter, the question of cuisine bears upon 
stratification (class) and the very food we imbibe. 

It was the same with the culture of flowers, the way that different soci- 
eties cultivated and used them for aesthetic, ritual, and related purposes 

69 Goody 1976. 70 Goody and Tambiah 1973. 71 Goody 1982. 72 Chang 1977. 
73 Rodinson 1949. 74 Goody 1982. 

120 A socio-cultural genealogy 

such as gift-giving and worship.' 3 Once again, what may seem marginal 
goes to the heart of cultures, not only of the rite of the gift but of agricul- 
ture and stratification. The pre-colonial countries of sub-Saharan Africa 
not only produced no domesticated floral varieties of this kind but made 
virtually no use of wild flowers in ritual or in other social contexts. That 
was very different from China, India, Europe, and the Near East. In their 
economies, African cultures had more use for the fruit rather than the 
flower, for the edible rather than the decorative. In Eurasia, the culti- 
vation of flowers was often a specialist occupation. Floral varieties were 
developed for the gardens of courts and other elites and they were also 
grown for the market; the market provided blooms for worship (but not 
in the Near East), for communication (gifts, presentations) as well as 
for decoration. In parts of China, fruit trees in blossom were cut down 
and placed in vases in merchant houses at New Year as an offering, in a 
gesture of 'conspicuous waste'; one did not wait for the fruit. And there 
developed an expertise in the culture of flowers for 'aesthetic' purposes 
just as there did with cuisine, an expertise that marked all the major post- 
Bronze Age societies. And it was not only political but mercantile elites 
that took part in these activities, so it is not surprising to find them linked 
to the development of commerce and even industry. Indeed, contrary to 
many European ideas, the delight in fine food and flowers was even more 
developed in the east than in the west. 

Cultural similarities extended to a whole range of other artistic activi- 
ties. The kabuki theatre appeared in Japan at roughly the same time (in 
the early seventeenth century) as secular drama developed in Renais- 
sance Europe and appealed to similar mercantile and bourgeois audi- 
ences. Novels began to be composed in China in the sixteenth century 
even before those in eighteenth-century Europe, and yet earlier in Japan, 
if we count the Tale of Genji (eleventh century). Some parallel develop- 
ments in these matters were due to the world-wide system of exchange 
that existed between merchant groups. Such groups owed their existence 
to the exchange of goods, an exchange that necessarily involved the com- 
munication of ideas and know-how as well as commodities. That is how 
the manufacture of paper and silk were transferred over the centuries 
from east to west. Other features such as glass-making 76 and the use 
of perspective in painting passed in the other direction. Some graphic 
motifs such as the acanthus and the lotus travelled in one direction and 
dragons in another. ' ' But in addition to such forms of intercultural com- 
munication, there was another process at work, internal elaboration (or 
social evolution) . Starting with the Bronze Age, urban societies produced 

75 Goody 1993. 76 MacFarlane and Martin 2002. 77 Rawson 1984. 

Asiatic despots, in Turkey or elsewhere? 121 

increasingly complex artisanal and intellectual activities, one building on 
another over time, as in many changes in technology. 78 Thus there was an 
internal dynamic in such societies, only partly prompted by the 'market', 
which resulted in parallel socio-cultural developments in different parts 
of the world. The notion of totally divergent patterns emerging out of the 
Bronze Age in Eurasia seems highly questionable at least if we adopt an 
'anthropo-archaeological' approach to the modern world. 

What I am suggesting here is an alternative to a 'cultural' account of 
differences between one society and the next. Such an account tends to 
be static and places human groups in an almost biological framework, 
though clearly involving cultural units (which have been called memes) 
rather than physical ones. This alternative has to be more dynamic, taking 
into the reckoning the external exchange of information and the internal 
development and communication of more complex behavioural forms 
over the long term. Cultural or social development of this kind is quite 
a different process from biological evolution, though in some cases it 
operates along 'selectionist' lines. However, a possible but not inevitable 
outcome of the analysis of cultures in terms of 'deep structure', tracing 
homologies (similar building blocks) between the various components, is 
a genetic one that has led to branches of 'cognitive anthropology' search- 
ing for built-in structures of the mind. Such 'structures' undoubtedly 
exist, but only along with more dynamic processes referred to above 
that arise from 'social evolution', that is, from 'external' communication 
and 'internal' development. It is these that are important in considering 
the long-term development of Eurasian societies and the arguments in 
favour of understanding those cultures in a frame, partly interactionist, 
which would exclude the radical separation of any major component as 
'despotic'. In this context, any comparative advantage that one society 
may gain is strictly temporary. 

A more dynamic account of cultural history looks for convergence as 
well as divergence from a common base rather than a categorical dis- 
tinction between 'despotic' and 'democratic' powers. Such a position is 
suggested by Eric Wolfs classification of states in both east and west as 
'tributary', the eastern sometimes being more 'centralized' than the west- 
ern but both belonging to one general category. By 'tributary' I under- 
stand a state which requires monetary support from its inhabitants and 
which therefore opens the way back to the 'rule of the people' who pro- 
vide that funding. And a similar parallelism is perhaps indicated by Need- 
ham's description of the west as having 'military feudalism' and the east 

Singer 1979-84. 

122 A socio-cultural genealogy 

as having 'bureaucratic feudalism'. Both writers eschew the notion of 
'Asiatic despotism'.' 9 

In my opinion Wolfs notion solves the problem that I find in many 
other accounts, Marxist and others, of 'Asiatic exceptionalism' and 'ori- 
entalism', in other words, the question of developments from the paral- 
lelism of the Bronze Age societies to the supposed diversity of Antiquity 
and after. But it requires a very radical conceptual shift, abandoning the 
notion of a distinct European sequence of modes of production, of com- 
munication, and of destruction. Instead we have to see the growth of the 
'tributary state' throughout Eurasia, the development of parallel urban 
civilizations, the increase in the exchange of goods and ideas over time 
and therefore the appearance throughout Eurasia of mercantile capital- 
ism, of markets, of financial activity, and of manufacture. There is no 
room for Asiatic despots, Asiatic exceptionalism, or Asiatic modes of a 
dramatically different kind. 

79 Wolf 1982, Needham 2004. 

Part Two 

Three scholarly perspectives 

Science and civilization in 
Renaissance Europe 

In the next three chapters I want to discuss three major writers on history. 
They are not necessarily the most recent, although Needham's conclusion 
appeared in 2004, but they are the most widely quoted and the most 
influential historical scholars who have played an important part in the 
contemporary understanding of world history. First of all there is Joseph 
Needham, originally a broad-ranging biologist who spent the latter part 
of his life studying the history of science in China and wrote and edited 
a magisterial series entitled Science and Civilization in China (1954-), in 
which he showed that Chinese science had been equal, if not superior, 
to that of the west until the sixteenth century. For the subsequent period 
he tried to explain what has been called 'the Needham problem', why 
the west took over. In the following chapter I discuss the influential work 
of the German historical sociologist Norbert Elias, who looked at The 
Civilizing Process which he sees as achieving its zenith in Europe following 
the Renaissance. Thirdly, I examine the writings of the great French 
historian Fernand Braudel, who in his Civilization and Capitalism, 15 th - 
18 th Century, discusses various forms of capitalism in different parts of 
the world, but concludes that 'true capitalism' was a purely European 

These authors are addressing, in their different ways, a very real prob- 
lem, namely the comparative advantage obtained by Europe following the 
Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century and in some respects 
following the Renaissance of the sixteenth. That advantage has to be 
explained. But I argue that their explanations are flawed since they either 
take that advantage back to a distant past, or also privilege later Europe 
in a questionable way, so that they distort world history rather than illu- 
minate it. 1 More recent writers have done little better, making similar 
assumptions about European uniqueness, the bourgeoisie, capitalism, 
and even civilization. These approaches may in some cases appear to 
have been modified by a different appreciation of world history or even 

1 Of course, only in certain ways; I am in complete agreement with most of their writings. 


126 Three scholarly perspectives 

by a measure of cultural relativism, but in fact they display the same 
eurocentrism as much of history and the social sciences. 

In the following three chapters, I look at some general features that 
have attracted historians. Firstly, Europe was held to have invented cer- 
tain characteristic institutions which had heralded capitalism; there were 
the universities of the twelfth century and the trading towns, both sup- 
posedly differing radically from their eastern counterparts. Then there 
was the notion that in the course of its history, in any case going back 
to Antiquity, Europe has a unique claim to certain virtues and practices 
such as democracy, freedom, individualism, family. In chapter 10,1 dis- 
cuss the claim made by many highly respected historians that Europe 
has a similar status regarding the emotion of love (or at least romantic 
love) . These claims again seem to be highly ethnocentric and teleological, 
stemming from attempts to account for the later domination of the world 
by projecting advantage backward in quite unsustainable ways. 

Following feudalism, a period held to be singular to the west, and highly 
significant for its modernization, was the 'Renaissance'. Its achievements 
are often seen by European scholars in the humanities as centring upon 
the arts. But art was very much linked to politics and to the economy. A 
recent commentator has described the situation in the following terms: 

Early fifteenth-century Renaissance art emerged as a result of the enhanced 
power of a predominantly urban and commercial elite keen to display their wealth 
through the commissioning of lavish art objects, and the eagerness of a church 
to manufacture and distribute a coherent theological position to the faithful . . . 
[Art objects] looked backwards to a classical past rather than biblical precedent 
to provide new political ideologies with intellectual credibility and authority.' 2 

Certainly there was a great revival in those branches of the arts, especially 
theatre and sculpture (not to mention secular painting and music) that 
had initially been suppressed or commandeered by the church. 

At a slightly later period, a Renascence (or the early Renaissance) 
reached Flanders. Jan Van Eyck (c. 1395-1441), working for Philip the 
Good (1419-67), Duke of Burgundy, was said to have developed if he 
did not invent the art of oil painting and produced the 'Adoration of 
the Lamb' (1432) in Ghent; Rogier van der Weyden of Tournai followed 
him (1399/1400-1464) and visited Rome, where he was welcomed by 
Humanists, taught there and became painter for the Medici as well as for 
the king. Hans Memling (c. 1430/5-1494) worked significantly for rep- 
resentatives of the Florentine Medicis and for the new Hanseatic League 

2 Brotton 2002: 138-9. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 127 

at Liibeck. 3 At that time Bruges was the largest trading city in Europe, 4 
known for its mercantile activity, bringing spices and other goods from the 
Orient but especially English wool, which formed the basis of the econ- 
omy, providing the raw materials for the famous Flemish weavers. This 
activity brought them into close contact with Liibeck on the Baltic, head- 
quarters of the extensive League, as well as with the fairs of Champagne 
and with Florence, Spain, and countries to the south. The flourishing 
economy and the burgeoning renascence went hand in hand, since it 
was the rich merchants, and the clergy and government they maintained, 
who supported the wealth of decorative and artistic work that adorned 
the town. 

In his account of the Italian Renaissance, Brotton asks whether the 
term has in fact 'been invented to establish a convincing myth of European 
cultural superiority'. 3 Certainly that is the way the Renaissance was often 
perceived. In the last volume of his History of France (1855), the historian 
Michelet wrote that it meant 'the discovery of the world and the discovery 
of man . . . Man refound himself, an event that in his view was not so 
much European as French. In a similar way Burkhardt in Switzerland 
and Pater in Oxford developed almost nationalistic ideas of the 'spirit' 
of the Renaissance celebrating 'limited democracy, scepticism towards 
the church, the power of art and literature and the triumph of European 
civilization over all others'. 6 In other words, it was 'humanism', with the 
human, like the Renaissance or the rebirth itself, being appropriated by 
the west, that 'underpinned nineteenth-century European imperialism', 
justifying European dominance over the rest of the globe. 

The east was not thought capable of activity of this kind. However 
there was a shift in the predominant views of China in the west. Crit- 
ical comment had existed previously (as for example in Vico, Hume, 
Rousseau, and Dr Johnson), but Jesuit missionaries to that country 
reported favourably on many of its institutions, ideologies, and attitudes. 
The positive element largely disappeared after the Industrial Revolu- 
tion when the more general view was that the country was backward, 
despotic, and unchanging. In the eighteenth century Europe had been 
much influenced by Chinese art and decoration but the German histo- 
rian Winckelmann saw only the Greek artistic tradition as displaying the 
true 'ideal of beauty', with Chinese art being much inferior and stagnant. 
The linguist Humboldt thought the language inferior, the poet Shelley 

3 Van Eyck's early work (early fifteenth century) had been influenced by Burgundian illu- 
minated painting. 

4 In the fourteenth century, Letts 1926: 23. Probably 40,000-50,000 inhabitants, but 
100,000-150,000 in the eyes of the chroniclers. 

5 Brotton 2002: 20. 6 Brotton 2002: 25. 

128 Three scholarly perspectives 

that their institutions were 'stagnant and miserable', Herder was scornful 
of their national character, De Quincey saw them as antediluvian, Hegel 
believed China represented the lowest level of world-historical develop- 
ment (for whom it was a 'theocratic despotism'). Comte, Tocqueville, 
and Mill saw it as inferior, barbarian, or stationary.' Sinophobia even 
took on racial overtones in the work of Gobineau and other Europeans, 
while the philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl saw 'the Chinese mentality' as 
'ossified'. 8 

Accepting a certain scepticism around the Renaissance these chap- 
ters will explore how scholars have adopted the eurocentric notion of its 
uniqueness and its contribution to the development of capitalism, and 
the way in which it provided the economic, social, and epistemologi- 
cal basis for later European intellectual and ideological developments, in 
other words for modernity. There was no Chinese equivalent of the word 
'modernity' or for 'capitalism' which even in English were nineteenth- 
century inventions. However, in the case of the Chinese their absence 
was deemed to show a fundamental problem, and to signal Chinese inca- 
pacity to attain to the European successes of the last few centuries. 

There was, for most European authors, no progress towards the mod- 
ern world without the Renaissance - hence the modern world is a purely 
European phenomenon, as are all the advances that derived from it: cap- 
italism, secularism, a dynamic art system, modern science. As we have 
seen, the more extreme version of this view moves the origin of European 
pre-eminence at least to feudalism, or even to well before the advent 
of Antiquity and Christianity, but even in more prudent formulations 
the fact remains that Europe is seen to have outdistanced its potential 
competitors since the transformations initiated by the Renaissance at the 
latest. In this context 'modernity' was seen as separable from capitalism. 
I shall take as my point of departure for analysing the accuracy of these 
claims the magisterial work of Joseph Needham on Chinese science which 
he has done so much to reintegrate into world history. Nevertheless when 
he discusses the advances of western science in recent centuries, he falls 
back upon accepted notions of the uniqueness of the Renaissance and the 
rise of the bourgeoisie, of modernization, of capitalism and of 'modern 

However, while all renascences were unique, all literate societies had 
them at some point. The tracing of a common line from the Urban Rev- 
olution to 'modernity' means that all societies in that tradition had a 
bourgeoisie, as we will see, and at least a mercantile capitalism. The Ital- 
ian Renaissance did lead chronologically to modernity in the west and to 

7 Brook and Blue 1999: 91-2. 8 Brook and Blue 1999: 82. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 129 

'modern science', but it is the uniqueness of the general features in the 
background of Europe to which these are attributed that is the problem. 
'Modernity' is conceived as a purely western phase, but even the criteria 
for its emergence, though stated in categorical terms, are far from clear. 
This use of the western concept of 'modern' is analysed in an interesting 
way by Brook in relation to its adoption by Chinese scholars, and his 
words are very relevant to the problem of 'modern science'. 

Since the rupture from the past was the key discursive moment in telling the 
history of the modern, the pre-modern had to be conceived of as being of a 
different essence than the modern world, incompatible with the modern but still 
providing a bed from which the modern could grow to overcome it. As it separated 
modern from pre-modern, modern history discredited the pre-modern as a source 
of contemporary value or meaning." 

The achievements of the Renaissance, to which Needham refers, were 
not of course confined to art. For at that time changes in education took 
place, following the needs of mercantile and administrative activity; so 
that both the content and the reach of the systems were greatly extended 
as it became more concerned with secular activities. Universities had 
developed earlier, picking up from earlier institutes of higher education 
such as madrasas, and their curricula; although still dominated by reli- 
gion, they included a range of other subjects. From the fifteenth century in 
Britain grammar schools and their equivalents proliferated at a municipal 
level (church schools had reappeared much earlier, in the tenth century); 
similar developments took place elsewhere. Then, in the middle of that 
century, Europe developed printing, the mechanization and industrializa- 
tion of writing that had been present in the Far East since 868 10 but now 
used with a limited alphabetic script instead of thousands of characters. 
That process, which made possible the rapid and accurate production of 
many copies of works, was critical in the growth of schools and univer- 
sities, as well as in the development and transmission of information in 
other ways. 11 

Brotton's account emphasizes the importance of the contribution of the 
east (principally of Turkey) to the Renaissance in Europe, both commer- 
cially and in terms of knowledge. 12 The singling out of Europe is curious 

BrookandBlue 1999: 115 10 Bloom 2001: 36. 

The Chinese were often criticized by Europeans for not having an alphabet. It is unclear 

what difference this would have made to the natural sciences. 

I find a problem with regard to Brotton's assertion that 'there were no clear geographical 

or political barriers between east and west in the fifteenth century' . Only in the nineteenth 

century, he claims, do we find the 'belief in the absolute cultural and political separation 

of the Islamic east and the Christian west that has obscured the easy exchange of trade, 

art, and ideas between these two cultures'. 12 That dating seems much too late, as in 

130 Three scholarly perspectives 

if we remember that the Renaissance was not determined purely inter- 
nally. But we also need to take into account 'renascences' that took place 
in Europe at other times, and in other cultures as well. In itself rebirth 
is not a unique phenomenon, as we have earlier argued in the context of 
humanism. Indeed in any written culture the possibility of going back to 
earlier phases of history and of having a rebirth (as of Antiquity) is always 
present; the written word enables us to do precisely this. Our own immer- 
sion in the culture of western Europe since the Renaissance, together with 
our reading of accounts of European art historians, inevitably we means 
that we give pre-eminence to that tradition. Despite such inevitable pre- 
dispositions arising from culture, the European Renaissance was not as 
unique as is often supposed. Parallels existed. In all societies descend- 
ing from the cultures of the Urban Revolution there was a growth of 
artistic and 'cultural' forms along with rising standards of living in other 
mercantile and bourgeois communities and in the societies in which they 
were embedded. The growth occurred in Renaissance-type developments 
at different times, but regularly in the general course of urban societies 
becoming more complex. The period called the Renaissance is known 
by many historians as the early modern, a formula which looks for- 
ward to a birth rather than backward to a death and a rebirth. What 
made the process more spectacular in Europe was the extent to which 
knowledge and the arts (and indeed family life itself) had been limited 
by the adhesion to a specific world religion, namely Christianity. The 
Reformation of that religion, which was again a looking-back to earlier 
written texts, represented the rejection of certain established beliefs and 
opened up the possibility of the same happening to secular knowledge. 
In any case it pointed to a more restricted sphere for the sacred, and 
family life too was no longer dominated by the rules of the Catholic 

Needham's view not only of the Renaissance but of the development of 
capitalism is not only eurocentric but follows Weber, another Protestant, 
in its attribution of significant 'progress' to the economic ethic of that reli- 
gious sect. 'The success of the Reformation involved a decisive break with 
tradition, and Europeans were not slow to reach the conclusion that there 
could in fact be real change in history, and that the Lord would truly make 
all things new. Protestantism, with its direct access to God, meant liter- 
acy' 13 producing for the first time 'a really literate labour force', sweeping 

Bernal's case linking the separation with imperialism. There was exchange much earlier 
but there was also a black side which saw opposition on the religious front, as we see from 
the expulsion of the Moors, the pogroms against the Jews, and the attacks on Christian 
13 Needham 2004: 63. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 131 

away class barriers; after the Renaissance 'an "industrial revolution" was 
bound to follow', as was 'modern science'. In fact, while Protestant coun- 
tries did see a rise in literacy rates, that increase was rather small and soon 
followed by Catholic regions. In any case it was in the latter, especially in 
Italy, that the commercial revolution in Europe, the early development of 
the mechanical production of silk and paper and the advances in banking, 
credit, and accountancy, all had taken place - most of them influenced in 
one way or another, by eastern imports. Needham is again reading back 
teleologically, from later developments, or perhaps from his own ideolog- 
ical position. Moreover, the early Europeans transferring part of western 
science to China were not Protestant but were in fact Jesuit missionaries 
like Ricci. 

What was peculiar about the west was that for many centuries systems 
of communication and learning had been restricted, not only by the dic- 
tates of the church (as happened in Islam and Judaism, which too had their 
humanistic periods) but also by the absence of paper (which was essen- 
tial to the Muslim world and which originated in China) . A Renaissance 
took place in the west when it opened out to the east, partly because the 
earlier collapse of the west had had such dulling consequences that had 
rightly given rise to the phrase 'the Dark Ages' for the initial period. To 
overcome these restrictions, a Renaissance was certainly necessary. When 
it came, the west experienced a burst of knowledge, of artistic activity, in 
part secular, stimulated by the wealth flowing from the increase in trade 
with the Levant. This aspect of the Renaissance was peculiar to the west, 
since the east had never suffered so extensive a collapse, a collapse that 
was accompanied by a dramatic ideological change in the shape of the 
coming of Christianity. 

Nevertheless the east did experience periods of greater or lesser activity 
in the sphere of knowledge and the arts, which were partly connected with 
the level of trade, as in the west. Zafrani refers to 'humanistic' periods 
in the Islamic and Judaic traditions, when secular rather than religious 
learning flourished. There was frequently a tension in Islam between Hel- 
lenistic learning ('ancient science') and religious texts, which were held 
by the orthodox to be the fount of all understanding. So while some 
rulers and rich merchants collected what knowledge they could in their 
libraries, others might dispose of such collections on theological grounds. 
In Europe the movement was more unilineal, in Islam more fluctuating - 
the rejection and revival of secular knowledge, particularly that derived 
from the Greeks, shifted over time and place. In Islam we find similar 
fluctuations with regard to the use of figurative art which despite reli- 
gious interdictions flourished in Persia as well as in Egypt and in India 
at the Mughal Court. Courts often escaped the restrictions associated 

132 Three scholarly perspectives 

with religious beliefs. At the same time there was a general quickening of 
trade and manufacture which led to a vectorial change throughout Eura- 
sia. Everywhere the bourgeoisie, essential to conducting these activities, 
strengthened their participation in society and strengthened too their 
contribution to knowledge, education, and the arts. 

That is why, as I have mentioned in the previous chapter, we find devel- 
opments in haute cuisine and the culture of flowers happening in urban 
contexts right across the major societies of Eurasia. We find similar par- 
allels in the theatre of the west in the sixteenth century and of Japan 
somewhat later, as well as in painting and the emergence of the realistic 
novel in both China and the west. While recent writers on the European 
Renaissance such as Burke and Brotton have shown the importance of 
Near Eastern culture in that development, their analysis does not go far 
enough. We need to take into account the renewal of cultural develop- 
ments throughout the major 'civilizations' over time. But this process 
was more marked in western Europe because of the earlier trough after 
the collapse of Rome and the advent of Christianity, and because of the 
impact of the sudden change in the modes of communication resulting 
from the adoption of printing and paper using an alphabetic script. China 
of course had long had a competitive advantage in respect both of print- 
ing and of paper, but Europe now made a great impact because of the 
advantage of backwardness in the breakthrough to modernization. 

In Europe, these developments provided a great burst of activity, 
including the development of 'modern science'. The Italian Renaissance 
is generally associated with developments in the arts, though these were 
not the only significant achievement of this period. The so-called 'sci- 
entific Revolution' or birth of 'modern science' was another. It forms 
the background to one of the great works of the history of mankind, 
Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China, rightly compared 
to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. As Elvin remarks in 
an introduction to the 'last' volume (VII, part 2), 'One's conception of 
the world has been transformed', 14 transformed by 'the revelation of a 
Chinese cultural universe whose triumphs in mathematics, the sciences, 
and technology were often superior, and only rarely inferior, to those of 
western Europe until about 1600'. Nevertheless, while its contribution 
was often essential to the west as well as the east, only in a limited way 
has it been assimilated 'into the bloodstream of the history of science in 

Needham spent some fifty years documenting the growth of Chinese 
science in a study of epic proportions. However, it is not his work on 

14 Needham 2004: xxiv. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 133 

science in China on which I wish to comment, but his attempt to explain 
why, despite the earlier advance, it was the west not the east that made 
what he sees as the breakthrough to 'modern science'. The paradox has 
been called the Needham problem. Following the lead of a number of 
western social historians, his explanation assumes a close connection 
between the development of science and the rise of the bourgeoisie, the 
growth of capitalism. 

At the beginning of this vast project Needham writes 'Our original 
question was: why had modern science originated only in Western Europe 
soon after the Renaissance?' 13 But he adds 'one train can hide another. 
We soon came to realize that there was an even more intriguing ques- 
tion behind that, namely, why had China been more successful than 
Europe . . . for fourteen previous centuries?' The first question was one to 
which Needham returned in his 'final' remarks whose composition was 
spread over several decades. These were based on the presumption of a 
leap forward in Europe after 1600 to 'modern science', that is, a science 
involving a combination of the experimental method and applied mathe- 
matics. The problem he posed was how did it come about that with this 
early advance both in science and in the economy in China, it was the 
more backward Europe that achieved the leap forward not only to 'mod- 
ern science' but also to capitalism. In offering an answer he concentrates 
on the spheres of the polity, the economy, and the internal characteristics 
of knowledge systems. 

For Needham, Chinese science was in advance of western science right 
up until the Renaissance. Most telling is the graph he produces in the vol- 
ume on Botany which shows that Europe and China were about equal 
in their recognition of botanical species at about 400 bce, in the time 
of Aristotle's pupil, Theophrastus. After that, however, European knowl- 
edge fell away while in China a steady advance took place until the six- 
teenth century when Europe made a sudden spurt and overtook it. 16 This 
he suggests was due to the birth of 'modern science' which is defined as 
'the mathematicization of hypotheses about Nature, and the testing of 
them vigorously by persistent experimentation'. 17 The Greeks did little 
experimentation and the Chinese used it primarily for practical rather 
than theoretical purposes. 'Modern science' is seen, very generally, as 
arising 'pari passu with the Renaissance, the Reformation and the rise of 
capitalism'. 18 

However, Needham regards some elements of western advantage that 
assisted the advent of modern science as being present even earlier than 

15 Needham 2004: 68. 16 Needham 1954: xxx. 17 Needham 2004: 211. 
18 Needham 2004: 210. 

134 Three scholarly perspectives 

the Renaissance. For the west had the benefit of Euclid whereas the east 
did not develop the idea of geometrical proof 19 (nor indeed of trigonom- 
etry). These he sees as deriving from and connected with 'the public 
nature of Greek city life' since the public circulation of ideas requires 
their more explicit and detailed justification (as well as the absence of the 
Babylonian division of the circle into 360 degrees). Following Weber and 
others he sees the town in Europe as being unique and as contributing to 
the development of science by promoting the bourgeoisie and its values. 
Moreover, the east did not have the benefit of the tradition of the Greek 
city-state; 'Athens gave rise, when the Renaissance came, to Venice and 
Genoa, to Pisa and Florence, and these in their turn to Rotterdam and 
Amsterdam . . . and finally London ... In these cities . . . merchants 
could shelter from interference by the feudal nobility . . . until the day 
they should come forth . . .'. 20 So here he too sees a kind of urban life 
and its bourgeoisie (and capitalism) as unique to the west, inherited in a 
direct line from Antiquity. He also looks at the difference between 'mili- 
tary feudalism' in the west and 'bureaucratic feudalism' in the east, which 
he thinks influenced the process and restricted growth in the east. 21 In a 
sense, this attempt to interpret European history as offering that conti- 
nent certain long-term advantages stood in contradiction to his emphasis 
on the achievements of Chinese science. 

It is obvious that there have been important developments in Europe 
in all spheres, in the economy, the class system, and 'natural philoso- 
phy'. However, Needham's argument assumes that 'the rise of the bour- 
geoisie' happened in no other civilization in the world, not in India, South- 
east Asia, nor China. In the west, military-aristocratic feudalism (which 
differed from the 'bureaucratic feudalism' of China) 'was replaced' by 
the bourgeoisie who were more willing to experiment, for 'exact knowl- 
edge meant greater profits'. It is in that contrast between the two feudal 
structures that he finds much of the answer to his question. But just as 
in Europe part of the aristocracy engaged in commercial and financial 
affairs, so the Chinese mandarinate could and often did participate in 
trade while 'in retirement' and even at times 'in office'. They could thus 
wear two hats, not just government official/local grandee and landlord 
gentry, but also official gentry and commercial investor. They used their 
past in government and its connections to provide them with institutional 
support not available in the legal code. 22 

19 Needham 2001: 210. 20 Needham 2004: 211. 

21 The phrase 'bureaucratic feudalism' was used by the Japanese Marxist historian Moritani 
Katsumi (Brook and Blue 1999: 138). 

22 I am indebted for these remarks to Dr J. McDermott. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 135 

But there were other and earlier bourgeoisies; other merchants and 
manufacturers were interested in profit and in 'exact knowledge' even 
if they were not always as successful in the search. Moreover it is not 
altogether accurate to claim that in Europe the aristocracy were actually 
replaced by the bourgeoisie. The latter gradually achieved greater power 
and influence, but they had existed in Europe long before the Renais- 
sance, in Chaucer's company travelling to Canterbury, in Lucca, Venice, 
and Palermo, but also in Near Eastern towns such as Istanbul, Cairo, 
and Aleppo as well as much further east. Indeed they existed ever since 
the Urban Revolution of the Bronze Age, becoming increasingly impor- 
tant with the growth of the exchange economy. And that economy could 
not exist only in one country or continent, but was Eurasian-wide. The 
notion of uniqueness depends very much on the definition of 'modern' in 
qualifying capitalism and science. In the following sections on the polity 
and the economy I want to consider at greater length some of the factors 
Needham sees as causing the differences between China and the West in 
his attempt to account for the later (temporary?) imbalances in scientific 
achievement following the Italian Renaissance. 

The polity and the bourgeoisie 

The bureaucratic system of the mandarinate is praised by Needham for its 
early introduction of an administration based upon 'achievement' (exam- 
inations from the second century ce) rather than the largely ascriptive 
recruitment practised by other types of 'feudalism'. Needham considers 
that the early Chinese state and the bureaucracy, though basically 'non- 
interventionist', did a great deal to forward early science, with the con- 
struction of astronomical observatories (as elsewhere, of course), keeping 
millennial records and organizing encyclopaedias and scientific expedi- 

By contrast, science in the west was generally 'a private enterprise' and 
therefore hung back. Indeed in his words the 'social and economic system 
of medieval China was much more rational than medieval Europe'. 23 It 
encouraged science in the early period but subsequently acted as a brake 
when, according to Needham, the private enterprise of the bourgeoisie 
provided a better base for advance: 'Yet State Science and medicine in 
China were not capable of making, when the time came, that qualitative 
leap' leading to modern science in the west. 2 ' That failure he thinks was in 
part due to the nature of the bureaucracy which did not encourage com- 
petition. But what promoted science in the early days was surely capable 

23 Needham 2004: 9. 24 Needham 2004: 18. 

136 Three scholarly perspectives 

of promoting it later on, unless that possibility is excluded automatically 
by the very way one specifies a 'qualitative leap' to the 'modern' from 
the 'early', which partly derives from a nominalist problem. The assump- 
tion underlying Needham's analysis effectively means denying that earlier 
China had a bourgeoisie which, like guilds, he sees as inhibited by the 
mandarinate. The absence of the bourgeoisie (and of a monetary system), 
is thought to explain the failure to develop both modern (or indeed any) 
capitalism in China and 'modern science'. 

While it could be argued that China in the past was not modern because 
of a lack of a bourgeoisie, the presence of the mandarinate and therefore 
the absence of capitalism, in the past century the country has embraced 
not only socialism (which Needham sees as compatible with its earlier 
bureaucracy) but also 'capitalism'. While it might be possible to see cap- 
italism as a purely western import, it is more reasonable to see western 
procedures as compatible with eastern forerunners. Certainly the alter- 
native represents altogether too crude a level of analysis and is neglect- 
ful of the whole history of the east. The notion of a qualitative leap in 
European science must leave open the possibility of China rapidly catch- 
ing up with the west in the way that is more difficult for Africa. The 
socio-economy of China was of quite a different order and much closer 
to that of Europe than the views of Marx, Weber, or even Needham 
would allow. 25 The possibility of a breakthrough in China was much more 
likely than these authors, looking backwards from present advantage, took 
account of. 

The major cultures of Eurasia did of course differ in their achievements 
in knowledge at any one moment, but they were part of an interconnected 
system of exchanging units where the more 'backward' mainly caught up 
with the more 'advanced' within a measurable length of time. Needham's 
perception is certainly not altogether wrong but it is phrased in a vaguely 
Marxist, eurocentric way. He acknowledges that at an earlier point he was 
much attracted to Wittfogel's notion of 'Oriental Despotism'. But that 
hypothesis tried to link economy (irrigation) and polity (despotism) in too 
tight a fashion; water control differed in its demands and organization, 
but in any case 'bureaucratic' control was seen as a better description 
than 'despotic'. That is certainly an improvement. The claimed absence 
of the bourgeoisie in China draws from euromarxism which, taking a 
nineteenth-century stance, sees capitalism as a specifically European phe- 
nomenon. That was a notion to which Needham subscribed in calling 

25 The Chinese lineage of 1500-1950 had no equivalent in Europe, but the work of Faure 
(1989) suggests that it did not inhibit commercial developments in the way Weber sug- 
gested. That was certainly true in China overseas. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 137 

attention to the uniqueness of the Greek tradition as well as in standard 
comments on the medieval communes. 

The 'bureaucratic state' that marked China is said to have wanted 
to preserve social stability rather than further economic gain; it was to 
its advantage 'to maintain the basic agrarian social structure than to 
engage in, or even permit, any forms of commercial or industrial devel- 
opment whatsoever'. 26 That statement follows the assumption of a cat- 
egorical developmental scheme that sees agricultural societies as being 
succeeded by commercial ones. But such a scheme is highly simplified. 
Even neolithic societies already depend on trade and commerce for some 
purposes, as we have argued in relation to markets; all have some arti- 
sanal element that involves the exchange of goods and services. That 
component of society was radically increased by the Urban Revolution of 
the Bronze Age, which affected China as much as any other of the great 
civilizations. Of course, the agricultural activity of these societies was of 
fundamental importance for the bulk of the population, but innovative 
spheres were to be found in the towns which were often highly commer- 
cialized. These states comprised both agricultural and urban sectors and 
were ideologically complex. 

While leading elements in the 'dominant' rural-based sector might 
despise trade, the bourgeoisie developed their own values. These did 
not 'dominate' the whole society until much later, but they nevertheless 
had long provided an alternative focus, promoting the uses of literacy 
and the arts outside the court, the clergy, and the administrative process. 
The Third Estate existed, even when it was not formally represented in 
government. And as Needham himself notes for China, rich merchants 
might play a role at court, apart from having a central part in urban life, 
especially in the coastal cities. 2 ' Moreover, a country that produced vast 
quantities of goods under commercial and industrial conditions well in 
advance of Europe, partly for export, partly for the huge internal market, 
could hardly be said to reject commerce, even though some elements of 
the society were ambivalent about trade. However, that ambivalence is 
no reason to argue that there was no 'genuine' bourgeoisie. 28 As Braudel 
remarked of towns, 'a town is always a town'; so too its inhabitants always 
include an incipient bourgeoisie. The mandarinate may have inhibited its 
development and that of the guilds (as happened in other civilizations) 
but it could not and did not suppress them altogether. From the stand- 
point of social history Needham failed to allow sufficiently for the admix- 
ture of commerce and agriculture, and for the increasing part the former 
played in political and social life generally. The denial of the existence 

26 Needham 2004: 61. 2Y Needham 2004: 50. 28 Needham 2004: 8, n. 22. 

138 Three scholarly perspectives 

of a genuine estate of this kind seems to be a function of teleologi- 
cal history of a palaeo-Marxist kind. If there was no bourgeoisie (and 
no monetary system), that absence is thought to explain the failure to 
develop both modern (or indeed any) capitalism and 'modern science' in 

This argument about the later inhibitions on China's development of 
capitalism is more nuanced than Weber's view that 'officialism', that is, 
the scholar-officials of the bureaucracy, were the greatest impediment. 
Needham sees this bureaucracy as initially providing a stimulus to devel- 
opment, Weber as it being universally detrimental. Merchants, Weber 
claims, were always suppressed, anyhow after the Sung dynasty. In this 
argument Weber was followed by the distinguished French historian of 
China, Etienne Balazs, who wrote of the 'despotic power of scholar offi- 
cials' (who were however recruited widely by examination) and whose 
existence inhibited the rise of the bourgeoisie and hence the nature of 
Chinese towns. 29 

As a case-study of how ideology can impact upon research findings, 
Balazs's intellectual trajectory is interesting. He worked closely with the 
historian, Braudel, at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris and clearly 
influenced his thinking on China, as we will see in chapter 7. A recent 
commentator suggests that Balazs was affected by his own personal his- 
tory and by the political vicissitudes he had experienced. 30 Early on he 
took an uncompromising position regarding China's 'failure' to build 
on the achievements of the Sung economy. Zurndorfer writes of his 
'search in the endless volumes of statistics, countless troves of personal 
records, or bulky government reports in the hope of finding some evidence 
to support his idea that merchants continuously suffered under official- 
dom, or that peasants were always the victims of an overbearing, relentless 
state'. 31 Balazs was led to move from 'these stereotyped accounts of impe- 
rial China' to explore 'the complexities of the relationship between state 
and society' as the result of the publication in 1957 of a volume of 'Essays 
on the Debate on Sprouts of Capitalism in China' issued by the People's 
Republic. He then became especially interested in developments in min- 
ing during the Ming-Qing era when the state vied with private enterprise. 
Investigating the organization of production, labour conflicts and profits 
from iron, silver, and copper mines, he concluded that the state did not 
hinder private enterprise when it was not in its interest to do so. As distinct 

29 See Zurndorfer 2004: 195. 30 Zurndorfer 2004: 193. 

31 Zurndorfer 2004: 234-5. The word personal should not be taken too literally. As Dr 
MacDermott points out to me, what we have is some merchant guild books, account 
books but nothing really personal. He also suggests that it is a mistake to see traders in 
China as a class of 'merchants', as literati also took part. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 139 

from his earlier 'literary' studies that were inevitably skewed towards the 
concerns of the literati and the bureaucrats, he now used information on 
workers and local merchants. 32 So he came to recognize that there was 
'a sort of bourgeoisie' outside the state bureaucracy and that China did 
develop 'a sort of capitalism'. However, he qualifies this point by argu- 
ing that the legal position of the merchants meant they had to resort to 
bribery and were never able to achieve 'autonomous' consciousness. 33 
Instead they encouraged their sons to become officials and invest their 
profits in land. While he was influenced by 'the sprouts of capitalism' 
debate and the material it led him to study, he rejected the attribution by 
Chinese Marxists of the concept of feudalism to the long stretch of the 
country's history (in a manner parallel to Elvin's objection to Needham's 
usage) but at the same time tried to account teleologically for the later 
'failure' of China to develop modern capitalism by concentrating on the 
legal aspect of the position of the merchants. These, however, appear 
to have behaved in a manner not so different from merchants in other 
parts where engaging in trade was seen as less prestigious than holding 
land, a position that was everywhere modified over time. 34 Needham, 
too, repeats the old complaint that merchants and their profession were 
'not the way of life classically most admired in China', 35 so that mer- 
chants used their wealth to become 'educated gentry'. So too they did in 

It is not just Needham, Weber, and Balazs who entertain conflicting 
views on the development of capitalism and science in China. The whole 
Marxist tradition has been divided on China's position in world history. 
Essentially Marx himself saw China and Asia as a whole excluded from 
the main progression of human societies from the ancient, to the feudal 
to 'bourgeois' modes of production. China he described as the 'rotting 
semi-civilization of the oldest State in the world'. 36 Two quite different 
approaches developed among Marxist writers. After the October Rev- 
olution, some were more concerned with efforts to promote the anti- 
imperialist and peasant struggles in China, especially local communists 
who did not want to think of China as permanently excluded from mod- 
ern developments. 37 To them, a more dynamic history seemed called 
for. One group saw earlier China as feudal (fengjian), which would leave 
space for a progressive movement forward following the Marxist five-stage 

32 Zurndorfer 2004: 214. 

33 Dr McDermott points out that merchants could not have welcomed this autonomy which 
may well have led them to bankruptcy. 

34 Smith (1991: 9) argues that the large part played by the state in the early Sung period 
contained the seeds of 'capitalism'. 

35 Needham 2004: 59. 36 Blue 1999: 94. 37 Brook 1999: 130ff. 

140 Three scholarly perspectives 

theory; China was therefore not excluded from the usual history. Some 
even saw the country as having been dominated by commercial capital in 
recent centuries. Others believed it to be still marked by an Asiatic mode 
in one of its variant forms, as in Wittfogel. j8 Eventually in 1 93 1 the Soviet 
leadership decided against the static notion of an Asiatic mode, a notion 
that was brought back to European historiography with a flourish in the 
1960s. 39 

The development of commerce in a 'feudal' society was seen by some 
Chinese Marxists as the growth of 'the sprouts of capitalism' that occurred 
in the east as in the west. 40 This position, as against that of euromarxists, 
seems eminently reasonable. It meant the rejection of the Asiatic mode, 
and the acceptance of a universal 'feudalism', a concept that is watered 
down until it refers to any highly stratified agricultural society, of the 
general type that is bound to arise out of the stratification of agricultural 
production following the Bronze Age and the introduction of the animal- 
drawn plough. Like the west, China was seen to experience the emergence 
of what Gates (1989) calls 'a petty-capitalist mode of production' at the 
expense of the 'tributary mode', even though the government tried to 
resist its encroachment. However, money won through, for example the 
'New Whip' reforms of the tax system in 1581 meant the payment of 
taxes in money rather than in kind. 

How did this situation affect intellectual history, especially the history 
of science? Recall that in the west the notion of a leap is linked not only 
to the 'meteoric rise of modern science' but to the advent of 'capitalism' 
and of the Renaissance. However, the leap was not totally confined to the 
west. For China, Needham speaks of the 'fusion' of eastern and western 
astronomies by the mid-seventeenth century. 41 Indeed a figure in his 
volume on Clerks and Craftsmen 12 shows the points in time at which the 
west caught up in scientific achievement ('the transcurrent point') as well 
as the points of fusion. 

Regarding astronomy, mathematics, and physics, the west caught up in 
1 600 and fused some thirty years later. That hardly suggests one needs 
to look for some deep-seated causal features in the so-called failure to 
develop modern science, but rather for some more contingent ones. By 
contingent I refer to features of the so-called 'internalist' model of science 
but not necessarily confined to such developments alone; there can be no 
general opposition between 'internalized' and 'social' explanations. 43 

38 Wittfogel 1931: 57. 3 " Godelier 2004, Hobsbawm 1968. 

40 Brook and Blue 1999: 153. 41 Needham 2004: 28. 42 Needham 1970. 

43 Needham 2004: 22. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 


1\ Transcurrent point, mathematics, 

astronomy, physics 
h\ Fusion point, mathematics, astronomy, physics 
T 2 Transcurrent point, botany 
F 2 Fusion point, botany 
1\ Transcurrent point, medicine 
T t Transcurrent point, chcmislry 
F4 Fusion point, chemistry 




1000 1300 1400 1500 1600 ITOO 1800 1900 2000 

Figure 5.1 Graph showing transcurrent and fusion points for Chi- 
nese and western science. From Needham (1970), Clerks and craftsmen, 
Fig. 99. 

The economy and law 

One of the political factors Needham saw as inhibiting internal trade 
was the absence of 'law and order'. The roads, he argues, were at the 
mercy of bandits, the towns had large numbers of semi-employed indi- 
viduals, the police force was too small. But how did this situation differ 
from eighteenth-century Britain with its highwaymen, urban poor, local 
constables-and the feuding of its 'Highland clans'? Yet Britain managed 
to trade internally and to develop a factory system. As we have seen in 
earlier chapters, 'law and order' was certainly not the prerogative of the 
west in the way some analysts presume. All societies placed sanctions on 
violence, all managed to trade, all encountered problems in so doing. 

Needham also notes that business commitments in China were hon- 
oured in ethical principles, 'not enforced by law'. 44 But 'gentlemen's 
agreements', which are sanctioned reciprocity, are still common in 

44 Needham 2004: 60. 

142 Three scholarly perspectives 

business circles and the recourse to courts of law, which is apparently 
what Needham refers to, is not the only means of conducting business, 
especially in long-distance exchange between different jurisdictions. But 
that was equally true in the heyday of Victorian England when capitalism 
was triumphant; in some circles there too one found 'a built-in anti- 
commercialism' so that its absence hardly explains why Europe 'took off 
and China did not. Once again the author is thinking teleologically and 
looking for profound and long-standing 'social' differences, which do not 
seem altogether relevant. 

Another problem that Needham sees with Chinese trade is its failure 
to develop a credit system, 43 which meant that trade could not expand, 
nor merchants, nor capitalism, nor therefore 'modern' science. He writes 
of 'the underdevelopment of the monetary economy in China', which he 
contrasts with a 'modern monetary system'. 46 So that an individual could 
not 'extend his business operations beyond his personal presence'. 47 The 
suggestion seems quite unrealistic. Even in purely oral cultures one finds 
a measure of credit. 48 In written cultures such as China this process is 
much extended; indeed that extension of credit was one of the early uses 
of literacy, in Mesopotamia, in China, and elsewhere. His proposition, 
which is denied by Elvin on behalf of economic historians more generally, 
is certainly at odds with the huge exports of bullion from Europe and 
America; no serious economic historian, he remarks, would now see the 
Sung as being 'seriously under monetized'. Needham does admit there 
was a later revolution in money and credit but it was not followed, he 
claims, by any institutional change. He also mentions merchants with 
accountants as assistants, indicating a considerable level of guild and 
mercantile activity, but remains critical of those scholars, mainly Chinese, 
who see 'Han industrialists' as 'capitalist entrepreneurs manques', i9 who 
claim 'budding capitalism' under the Ming, and in the Sung perceive a 
'renaissance' and a 'commercial revolution'. All were 'abortive' because 
there was 'a fundamental institutional incompatibility between the central 
bureaucratic administration of an agrarian society and the development 
of a money economy'. 30 But they were abortive only from a teleological 
point of view, which is part of a palaeo-Marxist (albeit Christian) mind- 
set that sees China as lacking a bourgeoisie and as incapable of proceeding 
along the path to capitalism. 31 

This perception of the Chinese economy unable to make the grade 
in independent mercantile activity is curious until one understands its 

45 Needham 2004: 55. 46 Needham 2004: 55. 47 Needham 2004: 58. 
48 Goody 1986: 82ff. 49 Needham 2004: 57. 50 Needham 2004: 57-8. 
51 Needham 2004: 52. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 143 

ideological background. It is obliquely criticized by Elvin in his intro- 
ductory remarks when he writes: 'Leaving aside the issue of hierarchical 
eminent State domain, which was important up to and during the first 
millennium but rarely later', we see much variation within China. He 
criticizes Needham's notion of 'bureaucratic feudalism' 52 because the 
changes over 2,000 years were too great to allow any single label 'to 
work equally for all periods'. 33 The usage is part of Needham's propen- 
sity to 'biologize' Chinese history by stressing 'continuity', 'wholism', 
almost as inherited ('instinctive' is a word he uses) characteristics of the 
'Chinese mind' which he compares, often favourably, to the heritage of 
the 'Religions of the Book', since the country was not dominated by a 
single religious ideology. 'There was plenty of private mining from the 
Sung through to Chhing times, and private instruments of credit were 
extensively used during the Sung as they were under the Chhing, which 
also saw the rise of private financial institutions like the "money shops". 
Under the Chhing the long-distance transfer of funds was handled above 
all by the Shansi banks, which were technically private though in a sort of 
symbiotic relationship with the government'. 34 Elvin's account presents 
a very different picture of credit and commercial operations than the one 
expounded by Needham, a picture that is much more in line with the 
rest of east Asia 55 and closer to Europe, once again cutting at the roots 
of assumptions of earlier European advantage. The key to the apparent 
contradiction between what Needham had to say about earlier Chinese 
science and his views on the economy is contained in Elvin's remark that 
it 'seems likely that he was personally uncomfortable with the prospect of 
explaining a logic of Chinese historical development that might prove too 
different from the immobile and eurocentric formulae of the Soviet and 
Chinese Marxism of his time'. There was therefore to be no bourgeoisie 
before European capitalism. 

The notion that confined these developments to Europe was firmly 
espoused by Needham. 56 He follows Wallerstein 37 and of course Marx 
and many other nineteenth-century writers in seeing the rise of capitalism 
as unique to Europe; so too was the bourgeoisie which arose out of the 
collapse of earlier European society (seigneurs, the Church, etc.). And 
'with the bourgeoisie arose modern capitalism hand in glove with modern 
science'. But these questions all involve nominalist problems, such as the 
supposed boundaries between town-dwellers and the bourgeoisie. 

52 For earlier usages of 'bureaucratic feudalism' in a Chinese context, see Brook and Blue 
1999: 138. The general result of the Social History Controversy (1928-37) was that 
imperial power in China was 'feudal', though some preferred 'despotic'. 

53 Needham 2004: xxx. 54 Needham 2004: xxix. 55 Goody 1996a: 82ff. 
56 Needham 2004: 209. 57 Wallerstein 1992. 

144 Three scholarly perspectives 

Wallerstein sees these 'structures' as being characteristic of 'the capi- 
talist/modern' historical system, private property, commodification, and 
the sovereign 'modern' state. Rights of ownership are in no sense singular 
to the modern western world. We have contracts for land sale as early as 
we have writing, although subject to 'eminent domain' which he recog- 
nizes as widespread. In early societies there were certainly more property 
rights which were shared with kin and sometimes neighbours, but nev- 
ertheless individual property rights existed and were fiercely defended, 
even in the absence of a state and written law. In the simplest agricultural 
societies, some commodification existed, though land was often extra com- 
mercium. 58 The commodification of land was also rare in such societies 
but nevertheless perfectly comprehensible. Institutionally, the 'modern' 
west was far from unique, which is why Asia has made such spectacular 
advances in 'capitalism' in recent times. 

Wallerstein discards what he refers to as the civilizational (as distinct 
from the conjectural) accounts of the causes of capitalism - those associ- 
ated with the names of Marx, Weber, and others, opting for a more con- 
tingent explanation. He sees as the essence of capitalism 'the continuous 
search for profit' which occurred only in western Europe, effectively in 
the sixteenth century. It occurred when the crisis of feudalism pushed the 
landed class into capitalist enterprises. The continuous pursuit of profit 
is difficult to measure. Profit was certainly a feature of earlier mercantile 
activity; the endless pursuit he speaks of seems to be associated with tech- 
nological invention, especially the development of industrialization and 
mechanization. Certainly the tempo increased, but the bourgeoisie were 
already engaged in the search for profit, and it seems to be their existence 
and gradual take-over of the economy which Wallerstein 's discussion of 
the changing role of land-owners perhaps underplays. While he analyses 
clearly the changes that occurred in western Europe, and subsequently 
elsewhere, that history does not need to be written in such categorical 

In my own usage, the bourgeoisie were international. Of course, they 
had more power in some places than in others. But the extensive exchange 
of goods and ideas that took place along the Silk Route, by sea as well 
as by land, could not have happened without them and without financial 
instruments. Merchants were required as well as artisans and in some 
cases manufacturers; so too were lawyers, bankers, accountants, not to 
speak of schools and hospitals. And it was along these trade routes that 
various religions, which too played their part in the economy by organiz- 
ing fairs and pilgrimages, spread to the east, not mainly by aristocrats, 

58 Goody 1962: 335. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 145 

conquerors, nor by bureaucrats but by merchants, as witness the pres- 
ence of Jews, Christians, and Muslims on the west coast of India, as 
well as in China itself. They were involved in mercantile activity which 
is normally reciprocal, and led to the creation of merchant communi- 
ties in India (the Banias for example, and the Jains) as well as in China 
(Cheng Ho and his fellow Muslims in Beijing, for example) . These mer- 
chant communities developed their own sub-cultures which displayed 
some notable similarities, encouraging the growth of literary forms such 
as the realistic novel, of performance arts such as the theatre, of secular 
painting and sculpture, again breaking out of purely religious confines, 
developing the cultivation of food and of flowers which, as with some other 
arts, they gradually took over from the aristocracy. In this and in other 
activities they were crucial in the spread of knowledge between east and 

As for the rural economy, Needham writes of Chinese technology being 
so successful that it inhibited increases in production because it led to the 
numerical growth of the labour force, meaning there was little incentive 
to further mechanization, as would have happened with a scarcity of 
labour. As we have seen in chapter 3, that argument is similar to the one 
that has been applied to slave labour. Further steps were needed. What 
was required to bring Chinese agriculture 'into the modern world' were 
advances in technology 'not thinkable without the appearance of modern 
science'. 59 Yet modern science was not possible without capitalism, in 
agriculture and in the towns. So we come the full circle. However not 
only was Chinese farming already highly successful in feeding the many, 
but it was also very diversified; in the south rice cultivation required very 
different intensive techniques than the extensive farming along European 
lines in the north. Was there then really a case for demanding advances in 
'technology' apart from the breeding of new varieties, which represents 
a continuation of old ways? With its minimal use of non-human labour, 
Chinese farming might be considered ecologically in advance of extensive 
mixed holdings of the European kind. 

Water-power was applied not only in farming but very widely to the 
textile industry in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, 'challenging 
comparison with what happened in Europe in the eighteenth'. 60 It was 
'those same spinning, doubling and twisting machines that must have 
inspired the Italian silk industry of very little later'. Why did factory 
production 'not quickly ensue?' Needham asks. He attributes this 'failure' 
to a variety of general factors, including as we have seen to 'the inhibition 
of a monetary economy' and the bureaucratic state. That hardly seems 

59 Needham 2004: 62. 60 Needham 2004: 60. 

146 Three scholarly perspectives 

an adequate explanation; the former does not seem so 'backward' and 
the latter earlier encouraged developments in this very field. We need to 
look more closely at Needham's notion of 'modern science' which holds 
the key to some of these contradictions. 

'Modern science' and the internal characteristics 
of knowledge systems 

In selecting the west as the only region in which 'modern science' spon- 
taneously developed, Needham is led to adopt an implicitly eurocen- 
tric standpoint. The west 'spontaneously' developed modern science, 
whereas the recent Chinese Nobel prize winners supposedly achieved 
these goals only through a kind of imitation. We consider two of the 
main characteristics he singles out as the cornerstones of 'modern sci- 
ence', mathematics and experiment; but is so-called 'modern science' 
best looked upon as a purely western development when the numerical 
basis for its calculations came from Asian place systems and where the 
idea of experimentation must have applied very much more widely for 
any technical success to have been achieved? 

Beside the economic and political context Needham also mentions 
influences internal to knowledge systems and their mutual interaction. 
Gradual changes in one area are seen to have given rise in a different area 
of thought to conditions favourable to the complete overhaul of current 
practices and models. Needham discusses Christianity, which encour- 
aged an attitude towards nature said to be unlike that of any other reli- 
gion, education which was rapidly expanding and aided the wide spread 
of knowledge, and the advent of the printing press and the appearance 
of how-to-do-it manuals, again making information and thought much 
more widely available. 

Religion is the one of the factors used in explanation of what he sees to 
be the apparent paradox of the qualitative leap in western science when 
compared with its Chinese counterpart. Needham follows Roszak and 
other writers in suggesting that the capacity of the west to adopt a 'sci- 
entistic' point of view was connected with the 'aggressive intolerance' of 
Hebrew monotheism, together with its offshoots, Christianity and Islam, 
in favour of the 'desacralization of nature' embodied in the 'fuss about ide- 
ology'. These attitudes to nature are seen by others, according to Need- 
ham, as the result of Christianity's struggle with 'paganism' 61 and were 
reinforced by earlier Greek atomism, which was a 'mechanical materi- 
alism'. That reification of nature is claimed to have initiated the more 

61 Needham 2004: 93, quoting Pallis and Lynn White. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 147 

object-based approach characteristic of modern science' rather than the 
holistic, practical engagement of non-European cultures. But once again 
the west was not alone. India not only had 'advanced atomic speculations' 
but also a tradition of materialistic, atheist thought (the Lokayata). 62 
Confucius too displayed a considerable measure of scepticism regarding 
the supernatural. 

All written religions initially faced the same problem of confronting 
local 'animistic' ones that Christianity had with paganism, a confronta- 
tion that was never altogether complete. The argument is obscure, but it 
is simply not the case that the objection to idols as explanations of natu- 
ral events, which supposedly cleared the intellectual air, was an attitude 
confined to the Near Eastern religions; it was also characteristic of early 
Buddhism, as indeed of Platonism and many other systems of thought. 
Indeed I have suggested it is a universal tendency in language-using ani- 
mals. 6j Once again Needham focuses on the west in order to explain 
'modern science'. But there are other possibilities to be explored. 

The whole existence of a binary conceptual division between 'mod- 
ern' and earlier science is thrown into doubt by Elvin's introduction. He 
writes: 'as of about 1600, China possessed in varying degrees all of the 
styles of thought identified by [the historian of science] Crombie as the 
eventual key components of science . . . with the apparent exception of 
the probabilistic, which hardly yet existed at this time even in Europe'. 64 
'The revolution in Europe after 1 600, in so far as there was one [my italics], 
lay mainly in the acceleration with which these styles both developed and 
interconnected, rather than in any fundamental qualitative innovation - 
probability excepted.' That is a radically different position from Need- 
ham's and obviously throws doubt not only on the idea of a 'qualitative 
leap' (anyhow at the level of scientific thought) in the west, but also of the 
explanations, in terms of the bourgeoisie, religion, the Renaissance, and 
capitalism. The singularity of modern science or technology has also been 
queried by a number of recent authors. 65 It is argued that in this feature 
Europe had earlier been backward so that significant change could not be 
accounted for in terms of some west European affinity for a tradition of 
scientific knowledge. Certainly such racist or cultural explanations must 
be rejected. 

Elvin tries to qualify the divisions between science and technology on 
the one hand, and between modern and earlier science on the other, 
modifying the terminology employed by many historians of science. He 
criticizes the 'slightly Brahminical disdain' among those scholars of the 

62 Goody 1998: 211. 63 Goody 1997. 64 Needham 2004: xxviii. 
65 Wallerstein 1999: 20. 

148 Three scholarly perspectives 

higher sciences towards attempts to make sense of rough and ready but 
complex phenomena such as moving water. He is also dubious of the 
validity of the division between science and technology adopted by many 
historians of science, a division that appears intrinsic to Needham's con- 
cept of 'modern science' on which so much of the argument regarding 
the 'Needham problem' depends. 

The 'Needham problem' 

Needham nevertheless insisted on trying to answer the question of why 
the spark of scientific knowledge caught fire in Europe, which is what has 
been called 'the Needham problem'. It has been suggested that, following 
the practice in some Islamic circles, teachers such as Roger Bacon in 
Europe began systematically to probe the qualities of the natural world 
(against the background we have noted in the previous section), although 
as Elvin points out, a similar movement was also found among Chinese 
alchemists. It has also been suggested, as we have seen, that with the 
advent of printing, the production of handbooks on how-to-do-it again 
encouraged such enquiries, but printing had also been established in 
China long before. 

What differences can we see in the European situation? The conti- 
nent had fallen far behind in the accumulation of knowledge, as we see 
from Needham's remarkable summary diagram in his last contribution 
to Science and Civilisation in China 66 (see Table 5.1). 
When Europe was largely cut off from its eastern neighbours in the early 
Middle Ages, it turned in on itself and on its dominantly religious culture. 
With the expansion of trade and contacts with the rest of the world, 
especially with Islamic Europe and the Islamic Near East, a realization 
of its backwardness in matters of trade, knowledge, and invention would 
have made itself felt. Trade picked up, knowledge flowed in from abroad, 
as did information and inventions from the east including from India and 
China, usually by way of merchant contacts passing along the great band 
of Muslim societies that stretched across Asia. The recovery of knowledge 
was extraordinarily rapid, depending upon the particular field. The speed 
had surely to do with 'the advantage of backwardness'. Within a relatively 
short space of time the inferiority regarding the east was overcome. 

Another of the features deemed to be responsible for the sudden Euro- 
pean recovery of knowledge after the Renaissance was the expansion of 
education, in universities and in schools, partly promoted by the advent 
of printing bringing about the ability to disseminate rapidly and in large 

66 Needham 2004: xx, see figure 2. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 


Table 5.1 Transmission of mechanical and other techniques from China 
to the west 

lag in 

(a) Square-pallet chain-pump 

(b) Edge-runner mill 

Edge-runner mill with application of water-power 

(c) Metallurgical blowing-engines, water-power 

(d) Rotary fan and rotary winnowing machine 

(e) Piston-bellows 

(f) Draw-loom 

(g) Silk-handing machinery (a form of flyer for laying thread evenly 

on reels appears in the + 1 1th century; and water-power is 
applied to spinning mills in the + 1 4th century) 
(h) Wheelbarrow 
(i) Sailing-carriage 
(j) Wagon-mill 
(k) Efficient harness for draught-animals: breast-strap (position) 

(1) Crossbow (as in individual arm) 
(m) Kite 
(n) Helicopter top (spun by cord) 

Zeotrope (moved by ascending hot-air current) 
(o) Deep drilling 
(p) Cast iron 
(q) 'Cardan' suspension 
(r) Segmental arch bridge 
(s) Iron-chain suspension-bridge 
(t) Canal lock-gates 
(u) Nautical construction principles 
(v) Stern-post rudder 
(w) Gunpowder 

Gunpowder used as a war technique 
(x) Magnetic compass (lodestone spoon) 

Magnetic compass with needle 

Magnetic compass used for navigation 
(y) Paper 

Printing (block) 

Printing (moveable type) 

Printing (metal moveable type) 
(z) Porcelain 






c. 14 



















c. 4 











Source: Needham 2004: 214. 

1 50 Three scholarly perspectives 

quantities both text and diagrams. 67 However, this was not a uniquely 
European feature either, as we see in chapter 8. Elvin writes of the error 
that some historians have made in considering the presence of the 'uni- 
versity' in twelfth-century Europe as being the magic variable regarding 
the origins of 'modern science'. For he finds 'analogies to universities 
in China', 68 the best known of which was the 'Great School' run by 
the government during the Sung dynasty. It had mathematics, medicine, 
and examinations. In addition, the 'academies', much more widespread, 
offered instruction, debate, and training. 

Elvin also considers a proposal that two factors may be involved, firstly 
the conception of nature as a repository of decipherable secrets, possibly 
derived as we have seen from a strand of the Islamic tradition which most 
notably stimulated Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century. The second 
relates to the vulgarization of knowledge leading to 'a barrage of how-to- 
do-it manuals' which was obviously linked to the advent of printing. Nev- 
ertheless Elvin rejects this suggestion because he sees Chinese alchemy 
as broadly equivalent to the first (the tradition of enquiry) and the long 
series of Chinese how-to-do-it books on farming and crafts (though not 
so easily available to the moderately literate) as a partial equivalent to the 
second (vulgarization). For example, Kubla Khan authorized the compi- 
lation of The basic elements of agriculture and sericulture which in its 1315 
edition was printed in 10,000 copies. 69 So we need to look more deeply 
at the context. 

What this situation emphasizes is that the gap between Europe and 
China was less profound than much theory assumes. It would seem that 
it only needed a spark to set the train of intellectual events in motion, 
a spark that could have been provided by Galileo (as Elvin infers) . The 
great advance could have been partly the result of the sleeper awakening; 
the very backwardness of western science - it permits freedom of devel- 
opment - largely held back in my view by the dominance of the Christian 
church and its world-view, was liberated, in part at least, by the counter- 
currents of the Renaissance, by the reversion to the models of Rome and 
Greece that were not dominated in the same way by a world religion. 
The secularization of large areas of knowledge, aided by the advent of 
printing to Europe, by the questioning of the Reformation, and by the 
growth of schools, of universities and of humanism, could be held to 
have contributed to these changes, as could the growth of trade, of over- 
seas adventure, and of the series of events that encouraged enquiry and 
promoted capitalism. 

However, whilst these events have provoked a radical change in the 
European intellectual climate, this can not be regarded as anything but an 

67 Ong 1974. 68 Elvin 2004: xxvii. 69 Needham 2004: 50. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 151 

awakening for Europe - be it one that gave it a temporary advance over its 
Far Eastern counterpart. Certainly, science did not make its first appear- 
ance in history in Renaissance Europe, for the simple reason that it had 
long existed elsewhere. The distinctions with which Needham operates, 
between early and modern science, science and technology (disputed, 
we have noted, by Elvin, among others), come out of a habit of regard- 
ing developments in post-Renaissance Europe as the zenith of accom- 
plishment and seek to justify a preference which otherwise might seem 
arbitrary. The Needham problem, posed as such, does not exist. The 
questions that ought to be asked refer to whether European primacy in 
terms of modern science is to be regarded as an undisputable fact. Need- 
ham has taught us that European science did not appear in a scientific 
desert, rather that there existed in other parts of the world solid sys- 
tems of knowledge which were, in his estimation, overtaken by Europe - 
but only after its prolonged passivity. Whether European leadership is 
unassailable remains an open question. 

The fact that it did make good use of science after the Renaissance is 
undisputable, but needs explanations of a less categorical kind than the 
ones we reviewed in this chapter. In Elvin 's view the Needham problem is 
even now far from solved. He concludes his review by suggesting that we 
look at more specific variables than Needham had selected. Elvin insists 
upon the 'disaggregation' of variables in a manner rather different from 
Needham's approach to social factors. For example, for universities he 
suggests that what is needed to sustain the argument about European 
advantage is a more specific analysis of the institutions. What specifically 
was it about the European institutions, he asks, that led to rapid scien- 
tific advance? He claims the same approach is needed for the notion of 
probability which he sees as one of the scientific ideas that China had not 
formally developed by 1600. Nevertheless while there was no statement 
of general principles on the subject, there was a very significant practical 
knowledge of probabilities embodied in the use of board games, some 
of which travelled from the west like backgammon, others from the east 
like dominoes. That practical knowledge may not have been framed as a 
general theory because it constituted a professional secret of gamblers. 
One does not broadcast secrets on which one's livelihood depends. But 
gamblers possessed the elements that could have produced 'a basic cal- 
culus of probabilities'. Since the figures were never published, 'so the 
codification, generalisation and progress usually associated with public 
availability never occurred'. '° This situation provides an excellent exam- 
ple of the way that literate expression seems to make explicit and hence 

Elvin 2004: xxxiv. 

152 Three scholarly perspectives 

more 'theoretical' the principles of science, the development of which 
depends ultimately upon developments in the mode of communication. 

Once again the notion of a grid would seem more appropriate than 
categorical distinctions that tend to identify each tradition with one pole. 
What we then find is the concentration of various characteristics in one 
tradition at one time, varying over the years, with the more 'disinterested' 
activity linked to 'science', the more immediately useful to 'technology', 
but neither being totally distinct from the other. Neither can be unilater- 
ally associated with one continent rather than another. 

There are other problems within binary categories that do not allow of 
plurality and contradiction. In a speculative passage Needham sees the 
possibility of a solution in China to some of the ethical dilemmas that 
'modern science' poses, because China has for 2,000 years had 'a pow- 
erful ethical system never supported by supernatural sanctions'. 71 He is 
referring here to Confucianism. But China's belief systems also embod- 
ied Buddhism, ancestor worship, and local deities. 72 What it lacked (and 
that was important for knowledge, as we have seen) was a single over- 
arching religious ideology, as in Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. That 
plurality certainly opened the way for wider enquiries into 'nature'. But 
there were in fact plenty of 'supernatural' agencies' and 'supernatural 
sanctions'. Needham singles out Confucianism but that is an example of 
a tendency to point to one element (the most literate) in the totality of a 
society's belief systems and to link this with other aspects of the culture 
one is trying to explain, as a number of historians and sociologists do 
in different ways. But it is a distinct error to overlook the diversity and 
contradictions in belief systems at any point in time and one that makes 
for unsatisfactory history. 

A related problem which I mentioned before with the use of categor- 
ical distinction is the tendency (it is no more than that) of regarding 
such distinctions as more permanent than can be justified. As a biologist, 
Needham avoids the recourse to 'racism' as it is normally understood 
but his history is often affected by references to the heredity disposition 
of cultural trends. Thus he talks of the 'most noble ethical instinc? of 
the Jews. 73 At another point he writes of the Chinese 'genius'. 74 These 
usages may be metaphorical but they appear to display an almost biolog- 
ical belief in cultural continuity, a notion that requires careful handling 
and much modification. My comment here seems at one with Elvin's 

71 Needham 2004: 84. 

72 At one time Needham attributed to Daoism a central role in the history of Chinese 
science but the idea is no longer current. 

73 Needham 2004: 85, my italics. 74 Needham 2004: 69. 

Science and civilization in Renaissance Europe 153 

point that Needham sees Chinese culture and society as unchanging over 
time, a totally ahistorical view; he does the same over space, treating the 
empire as homogenous as a nation state. He always leans towards conti- 
nuity. Once again a grid can be a better guide to the fluctuations, changes, 
and reversions to earlier models that occur in the historical process. 75 

The problems with Needham's social history can be seen especially 
clearly in his prognostications for China's future. Instead of copying the 
west, the development of a 'socialist form of society would seem to be 
more congruent with China's past than any capitalist one could be'. 76 
How he would have interpreted the present arrangements in China is not 
certain but many would no longer see them as 'socialist'. 77 In any case, 
the examples of Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan do not seem to 
bear witness to any incongruity of the kind he is thinking of. Needham's 
categories are too exclusive, both for the present and for the past. 

Quite apart from the overemphasis on cultural or historical continuity, 
there are other difficulties about Needham's attempt to explain what he 
sees as the 'unique' development of modern science in the west, along 
with the Renaissance, the bourgeoisie, and capitalism. Let me insist that 
these in no way diminish the enormous advance he made in the under- 
standing of Chinese achievements. But we come up here against the 
same problem that we will find even with Braudel's account of 'capi- 
talism' and with Weber's discussion of the nature of the medieval town, 
not to speak of his view of the contribution of aesthetic Protestantism. 
All these explanations suffer from an unjustified concentration on post- 
Renaissance Europe, which saw extraordinary developments in science 
and technology as well as in other fields. But when these are set aside as 
'modern' in contrast to all other forms, the 'Needham problem' is posed 
in a categorical, essentialist way that fails to allow for the subsequent 
developments in the economies, the polities, and the scientific achieve- 
ments of the east. Those developments require a different type of long- 
term historical-cultural account. If you start with contemporary Europe 
or European science as the point of reference, everything else is bound 
to seem deviant, as lacking something. That is a general problem for 
contemporary European historians looking backwards or elsewhere. Dif- 
ference takes on a somewhat negative evaluation, since recent European 
science becomes the norm and everything else is found wanting, a failure 
that needs accounting for. 

75 See Needham's denial of 're-emergence', Needham 2004: 51. 

76 Needham 2004: 65. 

77 The effects of the Chinese socio-economic revolution on Chinese history are discussed 
by Brook and Blue 1999: 155ff. 

The theft of civilization': Elias and 
Absolutist Europe 

Much of the history of the world has been written in terms of civilization 
and civilizations, of the larger units of post-Bronze Age society, often per- 
ceived as cultures clashing together in the manner discussed by Samuel 
Huntington. 1 From an ethnocentric position, the struggle is seen as one 
in which the west always wins out. Some prescient scholars do recognize 
that victory, if it should be so regarded in an interactive world, may be 
temporary while a few may even look upon the respective achievements 
of earlier centuries as being more equal than is often assumed. The more 
extravagant ethnocentric claims involve not only presenting contempo- 
rary or recent advantage as virtually permanent, but interpreting that 
advantage in terms of the evolving aspects of European society alone, 
at least since the sixteenth century and often long before. An influen- 
tial example of such an approach is the study of the sociologist Norbert 
Elias entitled The Civilizing Process, 2 in which the author's intentions to 
elucidate this process are qualified by the limitations of his approach to 
human cultures. 

Civilization is a word used in a variety of ways. It is widely employed 
in contrast to barbarism, both concepts that take their particular form 
in the Greek world and its view of its neighbours in the north, in the 
south, and in the east. The latter term began life as a highly ethnocentric 
notion for the despised other but it also had a more solid rationale since 
the inhabitants of cities (civis, a citizen) used the term 'barbarian' for 
those outside its walls, with more rural practices. Eventually the pair of 
words got taken up by western anthropologists and archaeologists with- 
out any element of moral evaluation to refer to the 'culture of cities', 
civilization, to complex societies based on plough agriculture, artisanal 
production, and the use of writing that emerged in the Bronze Age around 
3000 bce, 3 and barbarism to those practising a simpler, hoe agriculture. 

However, in common speech the ethnocentric, evaluative usage contin- 
ued. In colonial situations, one constantly heard the word 'barbarian' in 

1 Huntington 1996. 2 Elias 1994a. 3 Childe 1942. 

The theft of 'civilization' 155 

the mouths of Europeans to refer to the members and 'customs' of other 
cultures with whom they came in contact. Today one hears it applied with 
equal frequency, always pejoratively, to immigrants from other lands or 
to active resisters who do not play by the normal rules. The counterpart, 
'civilized', has returned in a basically European context in Elias's widely 
acclaimed book. 

My aim in this chapter is to use the kind of material available on Heian 
Japan, China, and other eastern cultures to query Elias's confinement 
of civilization to a purely European context, which I regard as 'the theft 
of civilization' by Europe. Secondly, I want to juxtapose Elias's project 
in The Civilizing Process 4 with his experiences in Ghana where he taught 
towards the end of his life and so elucidate his more general attitude to 
what anthropologists refer to as 'other cultures' (especially the 'uncivi- 
lized', 'barbarian') with a view to showing the self-congratulatory nature 
of this approach. 3 Thirdly, some methodological considerations seem 
appropriate, to explain the distance between the data that was available 
to Elias and his interpretive conclusions. Some will consider Elias's thesis 
as passe but it still has an important following in France, as in the work 
of the distinguished historian, Roger Chartier, in the Netherlands, in 
Germany, and among sociologists in Britain, where a coterie of interest- 
ing followers publish the journal Figurations. New editions of his works 
continue to appear and raise the question of the comparative study of 
civilization in an acute form. 

Elias's enterprise takes as a starting point Kant's declaration that 'we are 
civilized to the point where we are overburdened with all sorts of social 
propriety and decency'. 6 The 'we' is Europe. His actual study begins 
with a discussion of the 'sociogenesis of the concepts of "civilization" 
and "culture"', that is, of how the very broad folk notion of civilization 
in Germany developed into a quasi-analytic term. In this view we are 
civilized, the others are savages - or pagans (country-dwellers) or even 
a lumpen proletariat in our midst. He sees the concept of civilization 
(in its general function and its common quality) as expressing 'the self- 
consciousness of the West', summing up everything in which the west 
believes itself to be superior to other societies and as indicating its special 

4 Elias 1994a [1939]. 

5 A version of this chapter was originally written as an ethnographic comment upon my 
encounter with Norbert Elias in Ghana in the context of the recollections of that country 
he published in a series of interviews. I was led to expand on the question of sociologi- 
cal and anthropological approaches which his sojourn there raised and to consider that 
experience in terms of his broad thesis about the 'civilizing process'. Later I was asked to 
expand these latter remarks in relation to his theoretical stance and those of other major 
social theorists of the twentieth century. 

6 Kant 1784; Elias 1994a [1939]: 7. 

156 Three scholarly perspectives 

character in relation to modernization. (Modernization is my term; he 
refers to 'the progress of the West' 7 ). This notion of progress is one he 
criticizes in the work of other sociologists 8 but here he justifies his own 
usage by claiming to be employing the words of the people themselves. 
That adoption of the actor's terminology obviously contributes to the 
eurocentric aspect of his work, since the speakers are Europeans. So that 
the usage comes to sound very like the way humanism came in some 
circles to refer to our own particular achievements at the time of the 
Renaissance or before. 

Elias's attempts to 'historize' the concepts of civilization and culture 
are of interest since, in contrast to scientific concepts, he understands 
their usage as inextricably bound up with a particular social context. But 
that consideration greatly complicates their analytical use as it leads him 
to take a stance based purely on the western social context. Civilization 
is everything the west thinks it has achieved as well as the associated atti- 
tudes. But then other complex societies have similar views about their 
achievements in relation to others. In this respect, his usage is very differ- 
ent from the one adopted by historians of early societies, where civilization 
is associated with the word 'civil' in quite another way (rather like 'gentil- 
ity') and refers to the culture of cities, the result of the Urban Revolution 
of the Bronze Age. We have to understand Elias's endeavours in a totally 
different, evaluative, frame of reference. 

Elias's claim refers to the emergence of both social and psychologi- 
cal patterns of behaviour. In the first case he speaks of 'sociogenesis', in 
the second of 'psychogenesis'. His claim is that after the Middle Ages 
behaviour was increasingly censured socially, leading to the sociogenesis 
of the feelings of shame and delicacy, and, more generally, to civilized 
behaviour. This in time becomes internalized, the mechanisms of civi- 
lization are moved from external coercion to internal censorship, shame 
becomes guilt (an idea that relates to Freud). The whole process from 
'Naturvolk' to civilization has been completed only once in history - in 
modern Europe. According to Elias, these developments have their origin 
in the shift from feudal society to absolutism. Social organization becom- 
ing ever more hierarchical and complex, it imposed tighter restraints upon 
behaviour which in time became internalized. 

Before proceeding with an analysis of his claims, Elias takes pains to 
bring out his theoretical and methodological interests. He is particularly 
concerned with the way in which the predominant type of sociology cur- 
rent in his day - he refers mainly to Talcott Parsons - had become a 
sociology of 'states' (static) and had set aside a consideration of problems 
of long-term social change, 'of the sociogenesis and development of social 

7 Elias 1994a [1939]: 4. 8 Elias 1994a [1939]: 193. 

The theft of 'civilization' 157 

formations of all kinds'. 9 An important achievement of Elias was that he 
kept alive the tradition of historical sociology, rejected by many 'post- 
modernists' and others, the tradition that was exemplified in the works 
of Marx and above all those of Max Weber. 10 

I do not wish to suggest that comparison is the only strategy history, 
anthropology, or the social sciences can adopt. Clearly there is a place for 
those who wish to concentrate upon the Nuer, upon the wider frame of 
Nilotic studies, or upon medieval Bosnia, even upon modes of behaviour 
in Renaissance Europe. There may also be a place for a mode of enquiry 
that embraces neither intensive study nor systematic comparison, but 
involves general speculation on the human story. I myself would prefer to 
see this listed under a separate designation, for example the 'philosophic 
anthropology' as practised by Habermas is a possibility here. But if one 
wants to say something about the differences between certain types of 
society (however defined), or even to imply the existence of such general 
differences, there is really no alternative to systematic comparisons. In a 
recent book Pomeranz acknowledges that much of classical social theory 
has been eurocentric but argues that 

the alternative favoured by some current 'post-modernist' scholars abandon- 
ing cross-cultural comparison altogether and focussing almost exclusively on 
exposing the contingency, particularity, and perhaps unknowability of histori- 
cal moments - makes it impossible even to approach many of the most important 
questions in history (and in contemporary life). It seems much preferable instead 
to confront biased comparison by trying to produce better ones 

by seeing both sides of the comparison as deviations rather than as seeing 
one as the norm. 11 That goal should remain an important aim for all the 
social sciences, and it is one with which the work of Weber and Elias urges 
us to engage. 

Despite the problems with aspects of his approach, Elias has had some 
influence on the development of sociological analysis but always in the 
European context. One example is Mennell's interesting study on the 
development of food in France and England, which is historical in content 
but has been given a sociological frame. An aspect of that frame is the 

Elias 1994a [1939]: 190. 

For Elias had worked with his brother, Alfred Weber, and had joined the circle of Mar- 
ianne Weber at Heidelberg, becoming an assistant to the sociologist, Karl Mannheim, 
with whom he later met up again in London. And that approach Elias applied to the 
fascinating topic of 'manners'. He is also very much preoccupied, as we have seen, 
with development over time. That was the case, but Parsons saw advantages in the syn- 
chronic analysis of social action. Indeed the diachronic analysis, in the work of authors 
like Comte, Spencer, Marx and Hobhouse, is dismissed by Elias himself partly on evi- 
dential grounds and partly because of an ideology that assumed development was always 
for the better, a movement in the direction of progress. 
Pomeranz 2000: 8. 

158 Three scholarly perspectives 

'figurational sociology' of Norbert Elias, intrinsic to his approach but in 
fact rather obscure. 

The word 'figuration' is used to denote the patterns in which people are bound 
together in groups, states, societies - patterns of interdependence which encom- 
pass every form of co-operation and conflict and which are very rarely static or 
unchanging. Within a developing social figuration, modes of individual behaviour, 
cultural tastes, intellectual ideas, social stratification, political power and eco- 
nomic organisation are all entangled with one another in complex ways which 
themselves change over time in ways that need to be investigated. The aim is to 
provide a 'sociogenic' explanation of how figurations change from one type to 
another . . . 12 

Like Mennell, Elias produces some interesting historical sociology 
about Europe. That necessarily involves the analysis of events over time, 
and it is change and continuity with which he is trying to deal in intro- 
ducing the notion of 'figurations'. But what does it in fact do that is not 
already done by numerous sociological or anthropological concepts? Very 
little. Moreover, there is always the problem with Elias's work that the 
figurations, like civilizations, have little comparative basis. Mennell refers 
to Elias's suggestion 13 'that it is one of the peculiarities of western society 
that the reduction of contrasts in culture and conduct has been meshed 
with the co-mingling of traits deriving initially from very different social 
levels'. 14 I doubt very much that this feature is uniquely western; certainly 
no shadow of proof is presented. 15 Nor are we offered any understanding, 
either in his original work or in his comments on Ghana, of the range of 
human society, behaviour, or figurations as a whole. And while one can 
certainly do valuable scholarly work without such an understanding, its 
absence gravely inhibits the analysis of a feature as general as the 'civilising 

Rightly in my opinion, Elias argues that we should set aside the ideology 
of the social sciences and attempt to improve the factual basis. But the 

12 Mennell 1985: 15-16. 13 Elias 1994a [1939]: ii, 252-6. 14 Mennell 1985: 331. 

1 5 A more elaborate critique of Elias has been offered by Hans-Peter Diirr, to which a 
sensitive reply has been given by Mennell and Goudsblom (1 977) . In my view the attempt 
to show Elias as concerned, intellectually and empirically, with the east and with the 
other is basically a failure. He started from a Weberian point of view, as I tried to show, 
both in the opening remarks in his book and in his African experiences, and he never 
managed to overcome a eurocentric vision. In their later comments, both these authors 
have modified Elias's notions, Mennell by stressing the complementary process of de- 
civilization, Goudsblom by taking 'civilization' back not simply to the sixteenth century 
and 'state formation', or even to the Bronze Age and its cities, but to man's invention of 
fire, which some have seen as the beginning of culture itself. The first modification takes 
care of the Nazi experience, the second of the exclusion of Ghana and the 'Naturvolk'. 
Both modifications point up the relevance of my critique and run, I believe, in a different 
direction from the main thrust of Elias's argument. 

The theft of civilization' 159 

problem with his study is that the factual base is restricted - nor is it clear 
in his earlier monograph to what extent a notion of 'progress' is intrinsic 
to his concept of civilization, of centralization and the internalization 
of constraints in the development of manners. There has been much 
discussion of the nature of Elias's concepts of 'progress' and of 'process' 
and their relation to earlier notions of evolution and development, but in 
his major book he is certainly dealing with vectorial transformation over 
time, both of society and of the personality. 

He also draws attention to the paucity of work on 'the structure and 
controls of human affects' except for 'the more developed societies of 
today'. He appreciates the need for evidence from other societies, but 
considers he has tackled the question, both with regard to differentiation 
at the socio-political level ('state controls') and to the relationship with 
long-term changes in affect control, the latter being manifest in experi- 
ence 'in the form of an advance in the threshold of shame and revul- 
sion'. The notion of such an 'advance' is critical. Although he wishes to 
replace metaphysically dominated sociological theories of development 
by a more empirically based model, he rejects the notion of evolution 
'in the nineteenth-century sense' or of unspecific 'social change' in the 
twentieth-century one. 16 He rather looks at social development in one of 
its manifestations, namely the process of state formation over several cen- 
turies together with the complementary process of advancing civilization; 
anything else seems to be the product of naturvolk. He claims he is 'laying 
the foundation of an undogmatic, empirically based sociological theory 
of social process in general and of social development in particular'. 17 
One would have expected a generalized naturvolk to be the first casualty 
of such an enquiry. However, he goes on, social change (seen as 'struc- 
tural') must be regarded as moving towards 'greater or less complexity' 
over many generations. 18 It is not easy to discuss the applicability of this 
theory to other contexts because of its great generality. At the same time 
he confines the notion of state formation and civilization to the mod- 
ern period in Europe. From a theoretical point of view such a purely 
European focus is unsustainable, especially as the process of state forma- 
tion was discussed by other German writers (such as the anthropologist 
Robert Lowie) in a much wider context. 

The civilizing process 

Elias starts the preface of his major book with the words: 'Central to this 
study are the modes of behaviour considered typical of Western civilised 

16 Elias 1994a [1939]: 184. 17 Elias 1994a [1939]: 184. 18 Elias 1994a [1939]: 184. 

160 Three scholarly perspectives 

man.' His thesis is that in the 'medieval-feudal' period, Europe was not 
civilized. The 'civilizing' of the west came later. How did behaviour and 
'affective life' change after the Middle Ages? How can we understand 
'the psychical process of civilization'? Specifically, he claims, there was a 
shift in 'the feelings of shame and delicacy'; the standard of what soci- 
ety demands and prohibits changed. The threshold of socially instilled 
displeasure moved, and so the question of 'sociogenic' fears emerges as 
one of the central problems of the civilizing process, which is marked by 
the internalization of social sanctions. Some peoples, he suggests, appear 
more childlike, less grown-up than ourselves; they have not reached the 
same stage in the civilizing process. While Elias does not claim that 'our 
civilised mode of behaviour is the most advanced of all humanly possible 
modes of behaviour', nevertheless the very concept of civilized 'expresses 
the self-consciousness of the West'. 19 By this term western society, he 
remarks, seeks to describe its superiority. 

He draws attention to 'the notion that people should seek to harmonise 
with and show consideration for each other, that the individual may not 
always give way to his emotions'; that notion emerges both in France, 
especially in court literature, and in England. 20 These ideas are seen as 
absent from feudal society and arose out of the court life of the absolutist 
monarchies of post-medieval Europe; 'related social situations, life in 
the monde, led everywhere in Europe to related precepts and modes of 
behaviour'. In other words the civilizing process is seen as linked to the 
'modernization' of Europe. 

Part of this process was the development of manners with the rise 
of the state from the Renaissance to recent times, with bodily functions 
becoming ever more concealed, both in word and in deed, with mediators 
gradually being introduced between food and mouth, with movements, 
gestures, and postures more deliberately formal. The evidence comes 
from manuals on behaviour (which Elias thinks should be taken more 
seriously than what we now call 'books of etiquette'), or from the French 
'manuels de savoir-faire', as well as from other written and visual sources. 
Both the instructions and the behaviour were class-based, aimed at upper 
elements of society, or rather at teaching the middle what the upper should 
be doing. Such manuals, like many books on cooking and other forms 
of stratified behaviour, are directed at the bourgeoisie rather than at the 
aristocracy itself, at those who want to be rather than those who are. At 
the same time they distinguish the 'upper' in general from the 'lower', 
especially as these groups, or components of them, were in the process 
of changing their position in society. 

19 Elias 1994a [1939]: 3. 20 Elias 1994a [1939]: 27. 

The theft of 'civilization' 161 

One of the problems with Elias's exposition is that, whilst some ele- 
ments in this behaviour, such as the use of the fork, were clearly new 
to Europe, striking aspects of these patterns of behaviour are reminis- 
cent of earlier classical models. Such models obviously played an impor- 
tant part in the course of the Renaissance in Europe, which was in 
many ways a rebirth rather than a birth (sociogenesis). 21 As with so 
many facets of European culture, societies were going through a pro- 
cess of re-civilization, not only of recreating but of retrieving what had 
often been lost following the collapse of Rome. High-low differences 
did not of course disappear in the Middle Ages, even before the period 
that saw the development of 'courtoisie' and chivalric honour. Neverthe- 
less, for a considerable period in the medieval west little stress was given 
to bourgeois culture, to the culture of towns ('civilization'), that had 
existed in the classical world. Even among the nobility, some graces had 

Elias attempts an account of European social life following the Mid- 
dle Ages. Though he is concerned with the socio-political changes after 
feudalism, he does not make the great socio-economic transformation 
of 'capitalism' or industrialization central to his study, as did Marx and 
Weber. The work of the former he rejects because of the author's identi- 
fication with the industrial working-class and his belief in the progress of 
mankind; while the latter's historical method in setting up ideal types ran 
against Elias's concern with process rather than with abstraction, distinc- 
tion, separation. In contrast to later 'civilization', Elias's interest took him 
back to the Middle Ages in Europe; what happened before and elsewhere 
was of little concern. He does not deal with civilization in Antiquity nor 
in the east. 

This thesis is treated as a question of unilineal development that took 
off in Europe at the time of the Renaissance. As a consequence of ignoring 
the process of civilization in earlier and other cultures, it comes to be seen 
as an aspect of modernity, as part of a comprehensive process that should 
include the socio-economic changes marking the advent of capitalism (in 
the Weberian or Marxist account) as well as the developments of knowl- 
edge systems; to these Elias gives scant attention. Another problem with 
his account is that the kind of restraint and etiquette that is manifested in 
the manuals Elias examined is a feature of all major systems of stratifica- 
tion. By major systems I mean those associated with post-Bronze Age civ- 
ilizations, which extended from eastern Asia to western Europe. Indeed 
beyond those areas to parts of Africa and Oceania, because Muslim 

21 Elias writes of the sociogenesis of the concept of civilization, of institutions (absolutism), 
even of sociogenetic laws. He appears to be referring to their origin in the social. 

162 Three scholarly perspectives 

missionaries spread new forms of 'restrained' behaviour, including cer- 
tain practices of cleanliness, to many other cultures, as also happened in 
China when educational institutions spread Confucian manners, rites, 
and ideologies throughout that immense land. Perhaps even outside 
that range, for in the more 'culturally egalitarian' but stratified states 
of Africa, special behaviours of this kind are attached not so much to 
groups ('classes') as to individual office-holders, to chiefs for example, 
another instance of the kind of restraint Elias observes, unconnected 
to hierarchies like those that defined Eurasian stratified societies. This 
suggestion points to the weakness of his particular developmental view, 
not of course of all developmental views but of those that take as their 
model relatively short-term developments in Europe and see the emer- 
gence of class-differentiated behaviour (in a particular cultural situation) 
as a unique event rather than as a recurrent process. 

That European focus and the aversion to abstraction also differen- 
tiate him from the French sociologist, Durkheim. 22 Marx and Weber 
certainly incorporated material on Asia into their work; indeed they saw 
that as essential to account for the development of capitalism in Europe. 
They knew rather little of 'other (simpler) cultures' in a more general 
way. Durkheim however did, and he worked on a much broader canvas 
in considering human development. Although Elias frequently discusses 
the division of labour, he fails to mention the broad comparative work 
of the influential French sociologist, concentrating only on events in the 
early modern period from a narrower perspective. Had he done so, given 
his strong psychological interests, he might have paid more attention to 
the internalized aspects of the division of labour that Durkheim took into 
account under the rubric of organic and mechanical solidarity, the former 
referring to the nature of relationships in simple, undifferentiated, soci- 
eties, the latter to the way groups and individuals link together in complex 
ones. He discussed these forms of the division of labour under the head- 
ing of moral density, a concept that was taken up by anthropologists such 
as Evans-Pritchard. For Elias too an interest in social origins was always 
paralleled by one in psychogenesis 23 since he rightly sees the internal and 
the external, the social and the individual, as being very much two sides 
of the same coin. 

Despite his lack of long-term historical depth from the standpoint of 
cultural analysis, we need to consider seriously Elias's constant stress on 
sociogenesis, an interest in the emergence of institutions which in the 
twentieth century anthropologists dealing with pre-literate cultures had 
rejected as being of little or no value. However it was a problem that 

22 Elias 1994a [1939]: 3. 23 For instance, on p. 26. 

The theft of 'civilization' 1 63 

historical research had opened up for Elias. The psychological aspects 
are inevitably more problematic to investigate because of the nature of 
the evidence but the emergence of institutions, providing there is some 
reasonable historical, comparative, or even theoretical basis, constitutes 
a perfectly valid field of enquiry. 

This brings us too the central example, namely, the sociogenesis of 
absolutism 24 which in turn he perceives, like Anderson in his work Lin- 
eages of the Absolutist State, 25 as occupying 'a key position in the overall 
process of civilization' which is clearly similar to the notion of despotism 
we discussed in Chapter 4. The process of the formation of absolutism 
is related to the way 'increased constraint and dependence came about' 
and refers to the Kantian discussion about civilized man being 'over- 
burdened' by 'social propriety' that we have seen is central to his whole 
enterprise. Sociogenesis, social development, is always accompanied by 
an internalized 'psychogenesis', the social constraints of absolutism by 
the control of the super-ego. His resort to Freudian concepts is indicative 
of the fact that he takes a similar view of social progress to that author's 
in Civilization and its Discontents. 26 

The common pool of ideas from which Elias and Freud draw is indi- 
cated in Freud's The Future of an Illusion, 27 described by the English 
translator and editor, James Strachey, as turning on 'the irremediable 
antagonism between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civ- 
ilization'. 28 'Civilization is something which was imposed on a resisting 
majority by a minority which understood how to obtain possession of the 
means to power and wealth', 29 that is, paradigmatically under conditions 
of absolutism, not by means of a democratic system as the later ideology 
required. The 'masses are lazy and unintelligent' according to Freud 30 
and have to be controlled by coercion, at least until education enables 
them to internalize controls when they will cease to hate civilization and 
recognize its benefits, including the sacrifice of instinct. 

The notion of civilization is very similar to that used by Elias and its 
benefits include the recognition of beauty, cleanliness, and order; baths 
were important in this process and the use of soap becomes 'a yardstick of 
civilisation'. 31 Indeed the passage seems to propose the very programme 
for the elaboration of Elias's thesis about the growth of civilization in 
Europe. Moreover the emphasis moves from the material to the mental. 

24 Elias 1994a [1939]: 269. 25 Anderson 1974b. 

26 Elias 1994a [1939]: 249. Although no specific reference is made to Freud in the original 
version, this absence is rectified in a subsequent footnote where the debt is thoroughly 

27 Freud 1961 [1927]. 28 Strachey 1961: 60 29 Strachey 1961: 6. 
30 Freud 1961 [1927]: 9. 31 Elias 1974 [1939]: 93. 

164 Three scholarly perspectives 

According to Freud the sense of guilt is 'the most important problem 
in the development of civilisation'; 'the price we pay for our advance in 
civilisation is a loss of happiness through heightening the sense of guilt'. 32 
And in the well-known letter he wrote to Einstein, Why War, 33 he states: 

The psychical modifications that go along with the process of civilisation ['an 
organic process'] . . . consist in a progressive displacement of instinctual aims 
and a restriction of instinctual impulses. 31 

The general line of argument, the view of civilization, the notion of 
restraint and repression, the control of instinctual (animal) nature, the 
role of authority (absolutism in the shape of the father) in the process, 
these themes are very similar in the two writers and help explain Elias's 
attitude to what he called Naturvolk when he visited Ghana and encoun- 
tered the native population. The rise of the state is directly connected 
with the control of feelings and behaviour. In considering this proposi- 
tion, we should note that the claim was not unique. That notion of state 
control associated with the internal behaviour of the citizens has its par- 
allels elsewhere, in Japan for example: indeed one suspects that such a 
claim is part of the post-facto justification for a state's very existence. In 
his commentary on the great eleventh-century Japanese novel, The Tale 
of Genji, the critic Bazan writes: 'To express themselves in feelings is the 
nature of the people; to rest in ritual and righteousness was the beneficent 
influence of the former kings." 3 In other words the conditions that are 
thought to have aided the emergence of civilization during absolutism are 
not dissimilar from those characterizing the so-called Asiatic despotisms. 
So there is nothing particularly European about this notion of the role of 
the state. And it is in any case obviously a theoretical error to see state 
sanctions as the only method of controlling behaviour, of making 'laws', 
except from a purely terminological point of view. In simpler societies 
reciprocity exists very widely as a social sanction, without any necessity 
for the actions of the state. 

Those actions are seen as influencing manners, just as manners are 
linked to internal changes. Elias concentrates upon aspects of everyday 
behaviour, the increasing use of tableware (especially the fork), of hand- 
kerchiefs, and so forth. Rising consumption over this period, associated 
with mercantile expansion, did see a series of substantial changes in west- 
ern cultures, including the elaboration in matters of dress and table man- 
ners. But we need to ask ourselves if it is satisfactory simply to select a 
particular set of cultural factors and then to disregard others which seem 

32 Freud 1927: 134. 33 Freud 1964 [1933]. 34 Freud 1964: 214. 
35 McMullen 1999. 

The theft of civilization' 165 

to go in a contrary sense? As well as changes in personal manners, one 
needs to take account of the increase in warfare and violence, including 
those aspects that led to Elias himself having to flee his native Germany, 
as well as less constrained behaviour in the area of sex, of violations of 
property rights and other forms of criminal action which we experience 
in contemporary life. 

Concerning violence, he claims that 'we see clearly how the compul- 
sions arising directly from the threat of weapons and physical force grad- 
ually diminish, and how those forms of dependency which lead to the 
regulation of the affects in the form of self-control, gradually increase'. 36 
The proposition is highly questionable, at least at the level of society, tak- 
ing into account the use and threat of weapons in the twentieth century; 
we experience this daily on our TV screens and on our streets. Yet he 
claims that social facts fit in with the general notion of increasing self- 
control. As we have seen, that thesis is vaguely based on the contrast 
with 'Naturvolk' with their supposedly freer feelings, on the notion of 
a shift from (external) shame to (internal) guilt, on Freudian and sim- 
ilar visions of instinctive drives and impulses gradually being brought 
under control by society. For Elias sociogenesis (as in absolutism) seems 
to be connected with shame, psychogenesis (as in the super-ego) with 

There are further problems with Elias's thesis: firstly that all social 
life, everywhere, involves giving some consideration to other individuals, 
some taking into account, some measure of restraint on the emotions and 
on behaviour, even for reciprocity's sake. While he may be right about his 
account of the historical development of table manners in Europe, that 
has little to do with the overall notion of the development of consideration 
for others, which he presupposes. 3 ' That consideration we certainly find 
elsewhere. And indeed, as we have seen above, in some respects a lack 
of consideration in other spheres appears to grow pari passu with devel- 
opments in table manners; today's violence in family and street is not a 
mirage and it is difficult to reconcile Elias's Whiggish approach (despite 
his claim to have rejected the idea) with the fact that at the time he was 
writing Nazis were murdering Jews throughout Europe, clicking their 
heels with handkerchiefs stuffed in their pockets and blowing their noses 
in a refined way. A book on civilized behaviour demands an adequate 
consideration of such contradictions. 

36 Elias 1994a [1939]: 153. 

37 For comments on this substantive aspect of his work, see E. Le Roy Ladurie, Figaro, 20 
January 1997 and Saint-Simon (Paris 1997), Gordon 1994, and the defence by Chartier, 

166 Three scholarly perspectives 

Secondly, the major problem with Elias's analysis of civilization is that 
it is entirely eurocentric and does not even begin to consider that a sim- 
ilar process occurred in other cultural areas. Let us leave aside the ear- 
lier societies of the Bronze Age, for which the term 'civilization' is often 
used, and consider the recent cultures of the east. The comparative his- 
torian, Fernandez-Armesto, writes of the subtleties of the court culture 
of Heian Japan as presented in Murasaki's The Tale of Genji which I men- 
tioned before. 'In Christendom at the time, aristocratic thuggery had 
to be restrained or at least channelled by the Church. Noble hoodlums 
would be at best slowly and fitfully civilised, over a long period, by a cult 
of chivalry which always remains as much a training in arms as an edu- 
cation in values of gentility. From this perspective, the existence on the 
other side of the world of a culture in which delicacy of feeling and the arts 
of peace were spontaneously celebrated by a secular elite seems astound- 
ing.' 38 Using a concept similar to Elias, he speaks of Japan as manifesting 
'a collective project of self-restraint', seen as a key term. 39 Nor is that 
the only similarity. For he adds, 'judged alongside some other eleventh- 
century court cultures, the values of Heian are not as bizarre as they 
seemed by the standards of Christendom'. For example, al-Mu'tamid, 
ruler of Seville, shared with Japan 'an epicene appreciation, a love of gar- 
dening, a talent for poetry, and a homo-erotic appetite'. The differences 
were less than Europeans often assumed. 

Elias would certainly admit that the civilizing process was also hap- 
pening in China (although this country is mentioned only four times in 
the course of this long book on civilization, including twice in the later 
notes) but his problematic and mode of explanation leaves little or no 
room for the inclusion of other 'civilizations', let alone 'other cultures', 
for it is highly eurocentric. That situation occurs partly because of his 
attitude to the 'general regularities' in customary behaviour which sys- 
tematic comparison discovers, for he sees the value of these regularities 
as lying 'solely in their function in elucidating historical change'. 40 But 
both structure and change are essential aspects of the study of society. 
One can understand why he was so opposed to the American sociologist, 
Talcott Parsons, and the tradition of highly generalized comparison he 
represented and which included such a strong emphasis on 'synchronic' 
analysis. But Elias himself altogether avoids any wider comparison with 
other societies, except a standardized Naturvolk. 

My observation of contemporary society suggests that what is often 
seen as the civilizing process in terms of manners or civility is not one 

38 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 20. 39 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 22. 
40 Elias 1939: 534, my italics. 

The theft of 'civilization' 1 67 

of straightforward amelioration, but is much more ambiguous. We pride 
ourselves on changes in our treatment of children (as in the work of Aries), 
of animals, of women, of prisoners of war, etc. There is some basis for 
these assertions but are the attitudes really internalized in the way Elias, 
taking a generalized Freudian line, suggests? Why then are our children in 
danger from abuse, mainly within the family but from outside paedophiles 
as well? Why do we have so many 'broken families'? Why Guantanamo 
Bay, Abu-Ghraib, and the abandonment of the Geneva Convention? 

At a technological level there has undoubtedly been an advance in civ- 
ilization in the sense of urban-based cultures. They have become more 
complex. There has been a parallel shift from luxury cultures to those 
of mass consumption, which has had the effect of partly generalizing the 
manners of the upper groups to others. In certain respects, their man- 
ners were always more restrained than those of lower groups. But that 
restraint does not necessarily represent an internalization of earlier forms 
of external behaviour. Although that is a common view held in the west, 
in folk ideas as well as in Freudian social theory, there is little evidence 
that our behaviour is more restrained internally than anyone else's. In 
all societies behaviour is sanctioned both internally and externally; the 
parallel notion that some cultures are guilt cultures with internal sanc- 
tions (us) and others shame cultures with external ones (them) seems 
quite egocentric and unsustainable. It is a eurocentric notion widely held 
of the other, that they are less restrained than us, as in the case of the 
wild Caliban in Shakespeare's Tempest. This idea, which rests on little 
evidence worthy of the name, has in turn been integrated as a premise 
in numerous theories concerned with other aspects of social life and its 
career began long before Elias. For instance, the famous demographic 
historian, the Revd Malthus, writing at the turn of the nineteenth cen- 
tury, saw the late marriage of the 'European marriage pattern' as being 
evidence of self-restraint and an ability to control the population, an opin- 
ion about restraint that for China has been decisively rejected by Lee and 
Wang. 41 

'What lends the civilising process in the west its special and unique 
character', Elias writes, 'is that here the division of functions has attained a 
level, the monopolies of force and taxation a solidity, and interdependence 
and competition an extent, both in terms of physical space and of numbers 
of people, unequalled in world history.' 42 Could that really be said of the 
sixteenth century? In any case he does not examine the history of any other 
part of the world and if he did so, given his initial question about post- 
Renaissance manners, he might still have ended up like Weber in seeing 

41 Lee and Wang 1999. 42 Elias 1994a [1939]: 457. 

168 Three scholarly perspectives 

Europe as 'unique'. Which of course it is bound to be. But the implication 
is that it is unique in respect of the factors leading to the civilizing process 
(or to capitalism). In a recent book Pomeranz has effectively queried these 
assumptions 43 in a manner that seems quite correct. 44 

Western society, Elias asserts, developed a 'network of interdepen- 
dence' encompassing not only the oceans but the arable regions of the 
earth (in the expansion of Europe), creating a necessity for an 'attune- 
ment of human conduct over wider areas'. 'Corresponding to it, too, is 
the strength of self-control and the permanence of compulsion, affect- 
inhibition and drive-control, which life at the centres of this network 
imposes'. 45 Having elaborated this relationship between terrestrial expan- 
sion (European colonialism) and psychological interdependence, pro- 
ducing permanent self-control (more complex super-egos), he sees this 
in turn as related to punctuality, to the development of chronometric 
techniques, and to the consciousness of time as well as to the devel- 
opment of money and 'other instruments of social integration'. Those 
developments include 'the necessity to subordinate momentary affects to 
more distant goals', 46 starting with the upper and middle classes. All this 
concerns 'western development' and 'western societies', with 'their high 
division of labour'. 47 High, note, rather than more complex. There is cer- 
tainly more planning, and hence delayed gratification, in such societies, 
associated with the reckoning of time. But that often involves external 
controls as much, or more than, internal ones which he sees as prepon- 
derant in this type of society. And we must not lose sight of the fact that 
apart from such 'attunement', state formation led to violence within and 
without the boundaries, to colonialism and oppression as well as to 'pax 

In the introduction that he added to the 1968 edition, Elias takes pains 
to bring out his theoretical and methodological interests. 48 We need to 
look at Elias's work in the wider context of social theory and analysis 
where the obvious comparison is with Max Weber. Weber had an impor- 
tant effect in encouraging a comparative approach on sociology. However 
his discussion was sometimes of limited value, as the notion of a single 
category of traditional authority was far too restrictive and did not cor- 
respond to what one found in practice. Traditional was simply a resid- 
ual category for Weber and so too it became for Elias. In the second, 
while he was extremely knowledgeable about the major Eurasian civiliza- 
tions, unlike Durkheim Weber knew virtually nothing of non-literate soci- 
eties, and little enough of 'peasant' ones. Such a wider interest was very 

43 Pomeranz 2000. 44 Goody 1996, 2004. 45 Elias 1994a [1939]: 457. 

46 Elias 1994a [1939]: 438. 47 Elias 1994a [1939]: 459. 48 Elias 1994a [1939]: 190. 

The theft of civilization' 169 

limited in the German sociological tradition from which Elias emerged. 
More stimulating was Weber's major problematic and the way he tried 
to test his suggested answer cross-culturally. But while he reviews the 
situation in the major Eurasian societies, he does so from the stand- 
point of nineteenth-century Europe without giving sufficient weight to 
the achievements of others nor yet to their points of view. Elias offers 
no such comprehensive review. He begins with Europe and ends with 
Europe. In other words his original thesis adopts a similar approach to 
those discussed by Blaut in his Eight Eurocentric Historians . 49 Elias would 
have qualified for a ninth place (though there are many other candidates) 
because of his statements about Europe's advantages in the civilizing pro- 
cess (and particularly regarding the internalization of restraint) without 
any review of non-European materials. 50 

As I have said earlier, his major work concentrates entirely upon Europe 
and the development of the civilizing process in the period following the 
Renaissance. This he sees as manifested in increasing self-restraint, in 
the internalization of controls over affect, which he contrasts explicitly 
with what took place in the Middle Ages (such as uncontrolled bouts of 
drinking) and continues to happen in simpler societies among the Natur- 
volk as in Ghana, with their sacrifices, rituals, scanty clothing but greater 
directness. With Weber, as with Elias, the focus came firmly back to his- 
torical comparison, though talk of the Naturvolk and of the assumption of 
some ideal type of traditional society brought one perilously close to the 
wider speculations of nineteenth-century anthropologists against whose 
procedures and results the fieldworking anthropologists of the interwar 
period with their 'static' observations had struggled so strongly and to 
much purpose. 

Elias does not see every development as proceeding in a straight line. 
After the First World War, there was a 'relaxation in morals' 31 but this was 
'a very short recession' which he claims did not affect the general trend. 
Nevertheless Elias asserts that 'the direction of the main movement ... is 
the same for all kinds of behavior'. 32 Instincts are slowly and progressively 
suppressed. While this point of view is commonplace in the west, it is not 
easy to find any empirical support. For instance, more revealing bathing 
costumes (and clothing for women's sport) presuppose 'a very high stan- 
dard of drive control'. Why does that observation apply to us and not to 
the scantier clothing of simpler societies? Indeed when one examines the 

49 Blaut 2000. 

50 As with many writers, there has been change over time. I am talking about the original 

51 Elias 1994a [1939]: 153. 52 Elias 1994a [1939]: 154. 

170 Three scholarly perspectives 

problem of increasing constraints from a different angle, the notion of a 
general progression disappears, although there may have been changes 
towards stricter and laxer controls over time. 

Later on towards the end of his life, Elias turned to consider the most 
dramatic of recent political events, the rise of Nazism (or more broadly 
Fascism), which some consider should have had its place in any account 
of the overall changes in human society. He now sees the Nazi period as 
manifesting a process of 'decivilization', of 'regression', but that seems 
to avoid the main issue. Both the Fascist ideologies and activities in Ger- 
many and Italy, like the World Wars, are surely an intrinsic part of the 
development of contemporary society that has led to our present situa- 
tion, and not some kind of 'regression', a social equivalent of Freudian 
psychological processes. 

That concept of regression seems to relate to the problem of phylogeny 
and ontogeny. There is little doubt that in most contexts Elias equated 
the childhood of the race with the childhood of the human being, the phy- 
logenetic with the ontogenetic (although children did not go through all 
the phases of the civilizing process); the Naturvolk or primitive needed to 
have his emotions and behaviour controlled, as was the case with children 
who required disciplining in the same way (with fear playing its part in 
both cases). That notion is now generally regarded as misleading. As has 
often been pointed out, Naturvolk have themselves already been through 
a long process of socialization, of denaturing, and to see them as lacking 
in self-control is unacceptable. In acephalous societies without elaborate 
systems of authority there are possibly more 'internalized' constraints, 
certainly reciprocal ones - which may of course take the form of 'neg- 
ative reciprocity' in the violence of vengeance and the feud. That Elias 
would later have understood had he learnt from the studies on Ghana 
undertaken by Fortes with his psychological and indeed psychoanalytic 
background, which Elias neglected. 

The change in the structure of affects is related by Elias to the change 
in the structure of the social formation, in particular the shift from the 
'free competition' of feudal society to the monopolization of power by 
the absolutist monarchy, creating the courtly society. In a differenti- 
ated culture, that increased central control is seen as offering greater 
'freedoms' to its members, entailing a shift from external constraints 
to internal ones, though the logical basis of this transformation seems 
open to question. And the shifting basis of being 'free' adds to those 

However, the process of what he calls state formation, the sociogen- 
esis of the state, is analysed exclusively from the standpoint of western 
Europe, which is of course where he sees the civilizing process as taking 

The theft of 'civilization' 171 

place. No indigenous African society was considered by him as having a 
state at all, though he lived within the shadow of the Kingdom of Asante. 
His approach contrasts with that of Weber, who was concerned with the 
sociogenesis of capitalism (and the internalized religiously based con- 
straints of Protestants) and discussed at great length the reasons why 
Asian societies did not, could not, give rise to capitalism. Nevertheless 
the questions are linked together. 

No need to consider Naturvolk in this civilizing process but it is unac- 
ceptable that there is no reference to other urban societies, especially as 
this might have led him to query the notion of a special 'social personality 
structure' in the west. The question he raises is whether the long-term 
changes in social systems, 'towards a higher level of social differentia- 
tion and integration', 53 are accompanied by parallel changes in person- 
ality structures. The problem of long-term changes in affect and control 
structures of people constitutes an interesting question and is not one 
that has been much discussed, historically or comparatively, certainly 
in terms of affect and emotion. However, there has been considerable 
interest in social control, including internalized sanctions, the question 
of shame and guilt, and the relation of segmentary (non-centralized) 
political systems to moral and jural solidarities which was raised by 
Durkheim (and only much later in the German tradition with its over- 
whelming concern with the state). The comparison and history of 'affect' 
presents greater problems of evidence and documentation, at least in the 
absence of written sources; indeed that situation throws some doubts 
on a dependence on the text alone for examining 'mentalities', and 
most anthropologists, discomforted by Levy-Bruhl's 'primitive mental- 
ity', would tend to follow G. E. R. Lloyd in his extensive criticisms of such 
an approach. That is not to deny the possibility of long-term changes, pos- 
sibly directional ones, at the level of affect, even if anthropologists more 
frequently take a relativistic or sometimes universalistic line ('the unity of 
mankind') about such topics, demanding a scepticism about such ques- 
tions as 'the invention of love' in twelfth-century France or eighteenth- 
century England, the evidence for which depends entirely on the written 

As we have seen Elias's failure seriously to examine other cultures 
leads him into several kinds of problems. Firstly, his sequence of devel- 
opment privileges western Europe and its development from feudal to 
courtly (of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) to bourgeois society. 
Secondly, his vision totally underestimates the social constraints in the 
simpler societies, certainly with regard to sex, violence, and other forms of 

53 Elias 1994a [1939]: 182. 

172 Three scholarly perspectives 

interpersonal behaviour. The fact that 'primitives' may go about scant- 
ily clad does not mean they do not have strong internalized feelings 
of shame and embarrassment. Thirdly, the alternative hypothesis is to 
over-interpret, as I think he sometimes does, the material culture as an 
index of a psychological state; material culture involves development and 
'progress' which is much more questionable with psychological states. 

What remains problematic in his analysis is not the interlocking of 
human beings in a wider perspective (society, culture, figuration), nor 
the relationship of the individual to the social (as distinct from society), 
questions that were more clearly discussed by Durkheim and further anal- 
ysed by Parsons in The Structure of Social Action, 3 * a study that Elias does 
not take fully into account. The problem that is most worrying lies in the 
nature of the nexus between social structure and personality structure. 
How mental stages correspond to social ones is a question that lies at the 
heart of his problematic. No one would deny that there are some such 
relationships. But it is very easy to interpret those as too tightly linked, 
too closely associated. Elias posits the western world as going through 
a series of linked stages of this kind. He writes of the emergence of a 
conception of the relation between what is 'inside man' and 'the external 
world' that is found in the writings of all groups 'whose power of reflec- 
tion and whose self-awareness have reached the stage at which people are 
in a position not only to think but to be conscious of themselves, and to 
reflect on themselves as thinking beings'." But what is this stage which 
is formulated in such a vague way? It seems to assume the existence of 
a more primitive mentality that excludes the possibility of self-awareness 
and fails to look for particular social factors leading to this supposed 
breakthrough, such as the power of the written word to promote reflex- 
ivity of this kind (as well as the role of individuals, social groups, and 
institutions that developed such an approach, including 'philosophers', 
other intellectuals, and schools). Can we properly speak of a 'stage in the 
development of the figurations formed by people, and the people form- 
ing these figurations'? 36 That again seems to be putting the problem at 
a too general, non-sociological, non-historical level. This he also does 
when he sees the shift from a geocentric view of the world as resulting 
from 'an increased capacity in men for self-detachment in thought'; 57 that 
particular development of the civilizing process led to 'greater self-control 
by men'. Many historians of science would put the relationship round 
the other way and offer explanations that did not require the notion of 
an autonomous civilizing process bringing about greater 'affect control', 

54 Parsons 1937. 55 Elias 1994a [1939]: 207. 5f > Elias 1994a [1939]: 20. 
57 Elias 1994a [1939]: 208. 

The theft of 'civilization' 1 73 

greater self-detachment. Indeed going to the roots of Elias's hypothesis, 
it is difficult to accept the construction of a prima mobile of this abstract 
kind which is not simply descriptive but causal - 'a civilisation shift . . . 
that was taking place within man himself', 38 nattering as that may be to 
our own egos. 

Even granted there were directional changes in behaviour linked to 
centralization in Europe, why disregard what happened in other soci- 
eties such as China when one is dealing with 'civilizations', as we have 
seen he does? There too the development of manners, the use of inter- 
mediaries (chopsticks) between food and mouth, the complicated rit- 
uals of greeting and of bodily cleanliness, of court constraint as con- 
trasted with peasant directness - as for example in the tea ceremony, 
all these present parallels to Europe at the time of the Renaissance 
that should have attracted his attention and led to geographical (cross- 
cultural) analyses rather than to one confined to Europe - especially given 
the more general psychological thesis he was attempting to substanti- 
ate. Stick to Europe if you will, but not if you are making more general 
claims. And that was precisely what Elias was doing, viewing in a Webe- 
rian fashion what was happening here in Europe as the unique path to 

What I want to establish is firstly that western Europe was not inventing 
civilized manners for the first time, let alone manners tout court. No society 
is without its table manners, its formalized ways of eating, and none 
without some attempts to distance bodily functions from the generality 
of social intercourse. Equally, in most stratified societies the behaviour 
of upper groups is more formalized than that of lower ones. I say most 
because in Africa, even in state systems, these differences of behaviour 
are relatively small, partly because of the nature of the economy, partly 
because of the related systems of marriage and succession to high office. In 
what have been referred to as 'primitive states', there is little hierarchical 
differentiation of behaviour, in manners as in culture more generally. But 
in Europe and Asia major states are stratified not only politically but in 
terms of culture too; all have experienced the Urban Revolution and its 

In a discussion of manners, however, we cannot ignore the fact that 
the west suffered a 'significant regression' 39 from the point of view of 
body baths and bodily cleanliness from the fifteenth to the seventeenth 
centuries. Baths, 'an invention from Rome' (a doubtful contention), were 
found throughout medieval Europe, private as well as public, with both 
sexes bathing naked together. Baths were even subject to seigneurial 

58 Elias 1994a [1939]: 209. 59 Braudel 1981: 329. 

174 Three scholarly perspectives 

dues. 60 However, after the sixteenth century when Elias sees the civi- 
lizing process taking off, they became rarer, partly due to the fear of 
disease, partly to the influence of preachers, both Catholic and Calvinist, 
who 'fulminated against the moral dangers and 'ignominy of the baths'. 61 
There was not a single bathing establishment in London in 1800. Some 
indication of the advanced state of affairs in the east is that in the Per- 
sian city of Isfahan, under the great Emperor, Shah Abbas (1588-1629), 
the city had 273 baths at a time when these were indeed scarce in the 
west. Soap production was low, though this is said to have been lower 
still in China, a country that was without the benefit of underwear (that 
appeared, Braudel claims, in Europe in the second half of the eighteenth 
century). But the Chinese nevertheless had toilet paper a thousand years 
before Europe, a fact he does not mention; paper is only discussed in 
connection with printing and money, the presence of which is said to 
have redeemed China's 'backwardness', which was a result of living near 
primitive countries 'in their infancy'. 62 When baths were finally rein- 
troduced to Europe they were known as 'Chinese baths' 63 and Turkish 
baths. But of course earlier Christians in Europe had often destroyed 
the Roman baths, for similar reasons that Braudel ascribes to the six- 
teenth century; they encouraged immorality and were associated with 
pagan rituals, including Jewish and Islamic practices. Their revival in the 
medieval period may have been connected with the Crusades and with 
Muslim influence. 

It was not only baths but cleanliness more generally that was the prob- 
lem. In Rabelais, Gargantua was visited by his father who asked if he 
had been kept clean while he was away. Yes, the son replied, none cleaner 
because he had invented a special ass wiper. 64 He had used various pieces 
of cloth, including his mother's gloves - 'nicely scented with cunt flavour'. 

Then I wiped myself with sage, with fennel, with dill and anise, with sweet mar- 
joram, with roses, pumpkins, with squash leaves, and cabbage, and beets, with 
vine leaves, and mallow, and Verbascum thapsus (that's mullein, and it's as red as 
my asshole), and lettuce and spinach leaves - and a lot of good it all did me! - 
and mercury weed, and purslane, and nettle leaves, and larkspur and comfrey. 
But then I got Lombardy dysentery, which I cured by wiping myself with my 

Then I wiped myself with the bedclothes, the blankets, the bed curtains, with 
a cushion, a tablecloth (and then another, a green one), a dishcloth, a napkin, 
a handkerchief, and with a dressing gown. And I relished it all like mangy dogs 
when you rub them down. 

60 Cabanes 1954. 61 Braudel 1981: 330. 62 Braudel 1981: 452. 
63 Braudel 1981: 330. 64 Braudel 1981, chapter 13. 

The theft of 'civilization' 1 75 

'To be sure,' said Grandgousier, 'but which ass wipe did you find the best?' 

'I'm getting there,' said Gargantua. 'In just a minute you'll hear the tu 
autem, the real heart of it. I wiped myself with hay, with straw, with all 
sorts of fluffy junk, with tag wool, with real wool, with paper. But: 

Wipe your dirty ass with paper 

And you'll need to clean your ass with a scraper.' 

By the sixteenth century, when he was writing, paper had come into 
Europe from the Arab world and had made an enormous difference in so 
many ways, not only for communication. Earlier in the fourteenth century 
in Piers Plowman Langland describes how people cleansed themselves with 

And seten [sat] so til evensong, and songen umwhile [from time to 

time] , 
Til Glotoun hadde yglubbed [guzzled] a galon and a gille. 
His guttes bigonne to gothelen [rumble] as two gredy sowes; 
He pissed a potel [pot full] in a Paternoster-while [the time it takes to 

say the Paternoster], 
And blewe his rounde ruwet [horn] at his ruggebones [backbone's] 

That alle that herde that horn helde hir nose after, 
And wisshed it hadde ben wexed [scoured] with a wispe of firses 

[furze]. 65 

Experience in Ghana 

Some of Elias's problems with other cultures can be seen from his com- 
ments on his experiences in Ghana in his Reflections on a Life. There, in 
response to his interviewers, he explains how in 1962 it was suggested 
that he take up the chair of sociology in Ghana for two to three years. 
He accepted, though he was then over sixty, noting 'I had an immense 
curiosity for the unknown.' 66 As a result he developed a 'deep liking for 
African culture' in a way that for anthropologists strongly resembled the 
attraction of nineteenth-century writers to the Naturvolk, a category that 
even included the Ancients. 'I wanted to see all that with my own eyes - 
the entrails spilling out, the blood spurting': ... 'I knew in Ghana that 
I would see magic arts, that I would be able to see animal sacrifices, in 
vivo, and I did in fact witness many things - experiences which have lost 
their colour in more developed societies. Naturally, this had to do with my 

65 Langland, B version, Passus 5, lines 339-45. 66 Elias 1994b: 68. 

176 Three scholarly perspectives 

theory of the civilising processes, the emotions were stronger and more 
direct.' The more natural (instinctive), the less civilized (restrictive). 

How did he learn about 'primitive culture', his interlocutor asks him 
in this book of interviews? 'I did a lot of fieldwork with my students. I 
began to collect African art, and some of my students took me to visit 
their homes. There I learned how formalised and ritualised Ghanaian life 
is: the student stood behind his father's chair and behaved towards him 
almost like a servant. The old type of family certainly is still very much 
in force in Ghana.' 

He recalls driving to a village 'deep in the jungle' with his chauffeur 
(there is a picture of the author with his cook and driver). He reached the 
village and 'realised for the first time what it means not to have any elec- 
tric current'. In other words his comments on the 'other' concerned their 
technology rather than their attitudes. The inhabitants betrayed equal 
curiosity and surrounded him, saying 'a white man has come', asking 
about his wife (he was a bachelor) . He rather than they was the odd man 
out, arriving in a chauffeur-driven car, without a wife. Elias fails to draw 
the evident conclusion from this encounter - that for each culture, the 
'other' represents the deviation from the norms of civilized behaviour, 
civilized in the sense of obeying social regulations that are often inter- 
nalized to the extent of appearing self-understood. He himself, with his 
peculiarities, was the aberration in the Ghanaian village, the one who 
disregarded the norms of co-habitation. 

On another occasion he went to the area that was to be flooded by 
the new Volta River dam and was amazed that people worried about 
what would happen to their local gods when the waters rose. This active 
concern with gods, and there are many of them, he sees as related to peo- 
ple's greater insecurity. He applies this thought to personality structure: 
'one has to conclude that the super-ego is constructed differently from 
ours, for all these gods and spirits are representations of the super-ego'. 67 
Whereas we presumably know only one God and have less segmented 
super-egos. In this way Ghana helped him see (or confirmed his belief) 
that Freud needed to be developed further in a comparative direction and 
in accordance with his own notion of the civilizing process. 'I thought 
that super-ego and ego formation in simpler societies would be different 
from ours, and this expectation was fully confirmed in Ghana', as we have 
seen. 68 Looked at in another frame of reference, there is shame (external) 
rather than guilt (internal) . In the former, 'It is not enough to rely on an 
inner voice to restrain oneself.' To achieve restraint 'they [his African 

67 Elias 1994b: 71. 68 Elias 1994b: 70. 

The theft of 'civilization' 1 77 

friends] have to imagine there are beings outside them which force them 
to do this or that. You see it everywhere if you go to such a country.' In 
other words, a kind of external restraint is there (contrary to his other 
assumptions about the unrestrained nature of sacrifice) but the controls 
and sanctions are different. 

However, this difference is not because they are more 'childish', as 
his interlocutor suggests; that view of Africans Elias now understands is 
a colonialist one. Our way of life is only possible 'because our physical 
safety is incomparably greater than theirs'. 69 While there are some upper- 
class Ghanaians who are 'on the same intellectual level we are ... no less 
educated and self restrained', the mass of the people erect their little altars 
and call upon 'fetishes'. Such religious activity (Elias is an out-and-out 
humanist) appears to be identified with unrestrained and uneducated 
behaviour; it is an aspect of social security, or its absence. 

The perception of such behaviour lies behind his enjoyment of their 
artistic manifestations. Their art 

expresses emotions far more strongly and directly than the traditional art of the 
nineteenth century or Renaissance. And that fits in very well with my theory 
of civilising processes; for in the Renaissance there was an enormous advance of 
civilisation, expressed not least in the attempt to make paintings and sculptures 
as realistic as possible. In the twentieth century there was a reaction against that. 
One can also relate it to Freud: what happened in psychoanalysis - that on a new 
level a higher degree of affect expression could be permitted is also seen in non- 
naturalistic art, which has a far greater resemblance to dream. African sculptures 
have the same quality. There are frightening masks and friendly masks, but they 
all give stronger expression, if you like, to the unconscious.' 

The Renaissance is seen as part of the European process of civilization, 
which became a model for the rest of the world. Artistically it involves real- 
ism which seems to imply restraint, the restraint involved in the realization 
of objective reality. For Elias, the theories of Freud represent a reversion 
to the acknowledgement of the primitive and his lack of restraint, though 
it is not obvious how Elias's developmental theory encompasses such 
long-term reversals. He himself relies heavily on a popular version of 
Freud. At the same time he sees Freud as needing to be supplemented. 
The notion of the super-ego would be different in other (that is, simpler) 
societies, a notion that he found was fully confirmed in Ghana, as we 
have seen. However, the evidence he uses is simply the multiplicity of 
shrines to which people refer their actions, a superficial observation to 

Elias 1994b: 71. 70 Elias 1994b: 72-3 (my italics). 

178 Three scholarly perspectives 

anyone with any acquaintance of the societies concerned.' 1 Once again 
these are hazardous conclusions about the native life drawn from con- 
sidering material objects. He remained distant from African religion, as 
is brought out in the use of the old-fashioned word 'fetish' for a shrine 
and in his anxious curiosity to see a blood sacrifice. Had he not heard of, 
let alone seen, a kosher or Muslim killing of an animal, or experienced a 
'Christian' slaughterhouse in Chicago or elsewhere? 

Problems with Elias's overall theory of social process emerge clearly in 
these comments on Ghana. At one point people slaying chickens at their 
shrines are seen as indicating a greater freedom of emotional expression. 
That is in line with the folk-notion of Naturvolk. At the same time he 
mentions the student showing excessive restraint before his father. The 
two comments indicating freedom and restraint run in contrary direc- 
tions. Contradictory statements both seem to fit the theory, suggesting 
that the psychological and sociological interpretations are each suspect. 
It would be very difficult to say if the LoDagaa of northern Ghana, with 
whom I spent several years, were more or less restrained than the con- 
temporary British; any assessment would have to depend on the context 
of the particular activity, not on an overall categorization. At funerals they 
showed grief but generally in ritualized ways that seemed to restrain or 
channel it. All rituals were restrained including sacrifices. But life was 
nevertheless undergoing many changes, with the addition of schools, of 
migrant labour and missions. In fact, I did not see African religion as 


I met Elias briefly when he was Professor of Sociology at Legon. It must have been in 
1964. My impression was of a scholar deeply embedded in the European experience and 
totally committed to Weberian categories, at least when we talked about local political 
systems. He appeared to have read very little about this 'unknown' place, which was 
receiving a great deal of scholarly attention at the time, and he gained his knowledge 
from what he called his 'field trips', driving out to a village with chauffeur and students. 
It was little informed by scholarly work on 'other cultures'. As an anthropologist who 
had by then spent several years in Ghanaian villages, I was unhappy at this notion of 
'fieldwork' and at what I saw as the non-comparative, eurocentred kind of sociology 
he practised. I had myself worked with the comparative sociologists George Homans 
(also a historian) and Lloyd Warner (also an anthropologist), both of whom tried to 
take into account the full range of human behaviour. For similar reasons I found the 
idea that one could gain any profound insight from a casual collection of African 'art' 
from itinerant traders to be highly questionable. One could not altogether approve the 
collecting and exporting of African objects about whose use one knew or understood 
little. That was too reminiscent of those predatory members of the scholarly tribe who, 
though later justifying themselves on grounds of conservation, were more concerned 
with acquisition and display than with an appreciation of the cultural context or with 
the meaning of such objects to the actors themselves. Most expatriates started an art 
collection - it was not difficult as every evening Hausa entrepreneurs with their wares 
visited the colonial-style bungalows on the campus; such transactions represented the 
complete decontextualization and commoditization of African art, but they provided 
something tangible to take back home. 

The theft of 'civilization' 1 79 

unrestrained as the Pentecostals who were then preaching in the Wa mar- 
ket some fifty miles away (led by the American 'Holy Jo', as he was known 
to all and sundry) . In local practice, killing a chicken was carried out to 
discover the truth about a troubling situation, possibly as an offering to a 
deity, but it never displayed the orgiastic qualities, nor even the 'freedom', 
that Elias attributes to the act. Many of the differences that come from 
his superficial observations about 'civilization' disappear in a more inten- 
sive and thorough examination. There is no real reason to assume that 
his attribution of psychological states and his sociological analysis were 
equally suspect in his European work. But why the great gap between the 
observations on Europe and those on Ghana? 

His problem about understanding Ghana touches upon the roots of the 
theory about the progression towards restraint intrinsic to the civilizing 
process. That is by no means confined to the author himself but is often 
part of the folk beliefs of Europe. He sees African art as achieving a 
more direct expression of feeling. The practice of blood sacrifice and the 
worship of a plurality of 'fetishes' are uninhibited actions that civilization 
has taught us to restrain in favour of prayer and monotheism. All these 
aspects of Ghanaian society are judged as closer to uninhibited feelings, 
marked by the absence of restraint. However, in the highly ritualized (and 
restrained) behaviour of the Ghanaian university student standing rigidly 
behind his father's chair, he seems to acknowledge that all social life 
demands some restraint, some control of behaviour that would otherwise 
lead to a war of all against all. Ritual plays its part. So too does language 
which intervenes between affect and its expression. 

By juxtaposing Elias's experience in Africa and his theory of the 'civili- 
sing process' I have tried to show that contrary to his claim that they were 
mutually self-supporting, experience and theory were in fact contradic- 
tory. They should have been recognized as such had the author given 
more profound attention to enquiries into the local scene, to attempts 
to understand contemporary behaviour, rather than imposing a pseudo- 
historical, pseudo-psychological, pseudo-philosophical concept of Natur- 
volk on what he saw. In this he followed the folk-notions of Europeans 
in their idea of the civilizing process, setting aside the more firmly based 
studies of pre-historians and of comparative sociologists. 

7 The theft of capitalism': Braudel and 
global comparison 

Antiquity, feudalism, and even civilization have been claimed as unique to 
Europe, thus excluding the rest of the world from the path to modernity 
and to capitalism itself, since all those phases are seen as logically leading 
into one another in successive stages. There is little disagreement about 
Europe's dominant position in the nineteenth century after the Industrial 
Revolution had given them a comparative economic advantage. But the 
argument turns around the earlier period. What was it that predisposed 
Europe to achieve this advantage? Did that continent invent 'capitalism' 
as many have supposed? Or is this claim by historians yet another example 
of the theft of ideas? 

In this chapter I want to look at attempts by distinguished scholars 
at global comparison regarding 'capitalism', which end up by affirming 
Europe's privileged position not simply with regard to the Industrial Rev- 
olution, about which there may be some agreement, but with regard to 
other, wider, and earlier features of the west that are thought to have stim- 
ulated that change. I will concentrate upon Braudel's contribution and 
comment indirectly on the way in which all these writers have deviated 
from 'objectivity', despite their best intentions. They have privileged the 
west to an overwhelming degree, thus depriving the east of its rightful 
place in world history. 

The French historian Braudel made a determined effort to view 'capi- 
talism' in a world-wide context. So too did the German sociologist Weber 
before him. The latter concentrated upon comparing the economic ethic 
of various 'world religions', concluding that only ascetic Protestantism 
provided the proper ideological base for the development of 'capitalism' 
(though as we have seen he changed his mind about Ancient Rome) . I do 
not want to argue that Weber was wrong in his programmatic pronounce- 
ment, only that he did not fully realize what was involved. And if he did 
so 'theoretically', he did not do so 'analytically'. He makes great efforts 
to be 'objective' when considering the nature of the 'economic ethic' in 
different religions (Ancient Israel, India, and China, as well as Europe) in 
relation to the rise of capitalism but he then comes down firmly in favour 


The theft of capitalism' 181 

of the Protestant variety. That focus has been equally firmly rejected by 
many other historians, but principally by the great French historian of the 
Mediterranean himself. Braudel saw market 'capitalism' as being much 
more widely distributed, while some scholars even identified it for ancient 
societies. Nevertheless, he argues that 'finance capitalism' was distinctly 
European and discusses in depth the reasons why this was so. 

Weber is more direct in his treatment of capitalism, linking it unilater- 
ally with the west. He makes great claims for objectivity in comparative 
analysis, 1 yet comes to the conclusion that he saw the development of 
the scientific spirit as more significant in the west and as linked to its 
notions of rationality. Take the process of disenchantment of the human 
mind which marked the growth of meaningful scientific knowledge by 
the process of intellectualization. This process has, he writes, 'continued 
to exist in Occidental culture for millennia' and constitutes 'progress'. 2 
That notion of progress, of 'continuous enrichment of life', is the key to 
civilized man, and was essentially western. 

Weber writes at one point that 'an "objective" analysis of cultural 
events', which proceeds according to the thesis that the ideal of science 
as the reduction of empirical reality to 'laws', is meaningless for such 
events. It is meaningless for a variety of reasons. One relates to his def- 
inition of culture which is 'a finite segment of the meaningless infinity 
of the world process, a segment on which human beings confer meaning 
and significance'. 3 This definition is very different from the classical def- 
inition of the English anthropologist E. B. Tylor, 4 which embraces all 
human action and beliefs. Yet it is one that was important to the schema 
of Talcott Parsons, 3 now largely abandoned, and to the American schol- 
ars who followed him. I myself cling firmly to the wider definition of 
Tylor in which culture covers all known human activities, material and 
spiritual, and would query the utility of this idea of Weber's, on which his 
discussion of objectivity depends, because it is in practice impossible to 

Weber's essay on comparison, which has been translated as "'Objectivity' in Social Sci- 
ence and Social Policy', constituted the introductory remarks of a new editorial board 
for the journal Archiv fur Socialwissenschaft und Socialpolitik. He explained that the dif- 
ference he perceived between the natural and the 'cultural' sciences lay in the fact that 
'the significance of cultural events presupposes a value-orientation towards these events. 
The concept of culture is a value-concept. Empirical reality becomes "culture" to us 
because and insofar as we relate it to value ideas' (Weber 1949: 76). His argument is based 
on the need to make an 'unbridgeable distinction' between 'empirical knowledge' and 
'value judgements' (Weber 1949: 58). Both are important topics for reflection although 
'those highest "values" underlying the practical interest are and always will be decisively 
significant in determining the focus of attention of analytical activity in the sphere of the 
cultural sciences'. But what is valid for us 'must also be valid for the Chinese' (Weber 
1949: 58). 
Weber 1949: 139. 3 Weber 1949: 80-1. 4 Tylor 1881. 5 Parsons 1937. 

182 Three scholarly perspectives 

establish a field of enquiry that centres upon the values of the observer 
(which he rightly says are important in the selection of topic), much less 
those of actors (in the way most sociologists take the notion of value ori- 
entation). In any case few scholars would in practice wish to limit their 
analyses in this way, though there are some anthropologists who try to 
follow Parsons's view that the entire field turns on beliefs and values, 
the domain of 'cultural science'. While values cannot be treated like sci- 
ence, he does aim for a measure of objectivity in his comparative analysis, 
especially in his broad aim of considering the origins of capitalism. What 
Weber failed to appreciate was the difficulties in the way of achieving 
objectivity, in separating 'fact' and 'values' in view of the extent of their 
interpenetration, determining a good deal more than 'the focus of atten- 
tion'. The difficulty is to be seen in his own work, especially in relation 
to the European origins of capitalism. 

When Braudel turns his attention to capitalism, he accepts an impor- 
tant number of western propositions about east-west differences relating 
to its growth, including that concerning the unique nature of the Euro- 
pean city, deriving from the north Italian commune of the tenth century. 
But he is very much against Weber's attribution of a primary role to 
Protestantism in creating the 'spirit of capitalism'. Fernandez-Armesto 
also criticizes the religious aspects of the 'Weberian thesis' in discussing 
the Atlantic empires, whose emergence has been 'used as evidence that 
Protestantism was superior to Catholicism as an imperialist faith and as 
proof that Protestants inherited the talents for capitalism that in the mid- 
dle ages had been particularly evinced by Jews'. He comments, 'Every 
part of this thesis seems, to me, to be misguided.' 6 The Atlantic empires 
of the southerners were more extensive, lasted longer, and were more 
profitable than those of the Protestant countries. 'The preponderance of 
northern powers in nineteenth-century world struggles did not begin . . . 
nearly as early as is commonly supposed.' And even then religion had 
little to do with that preponderance. What mattered was geographical 

I do not want to comment further on Weber's original attempts at global 
comparison. He was of course primarily concerned with the economic 
and cultural dominance of the west in recent times and his acute analyses 
of India and China always have the prevalence of western capitalism as 
their background. In fact he does not limit himself to the development of 
industrial capitalism in nineteenth-century Europe but understandably 
looks back to the pre-conditions, specifically to the Reformation (hence 
the Protestant ethic), to the Renaissance and to the 'Age of Exploration' 

6 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 238. 

The theft of capitalism' 183 

and even further back to the 'unique' nature of the European city, at times 
even to Rome. That route has been taken by most commentators on the 
situation. Marx and Wallerstein 7 both go back to the Age of Exploration, 
pushing Europe's advantage backwards in time from the nineteenth cen- 

The idea of global comparison is a historian's notion associated with 
recent European history. What is being compared? The phrase basically 
refers to the kind of questions that interested Marx and Weber in the nine- 
teenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries and pertains ultimately 
to the origins of (European) capitalism. Written from the standpoint of 
Europeans after the First and, in Weber's case, the Second Industrial 
Revolutions, that enterprise sought an answer to the question of why 
Europe 'modernized' while other major civilizations in Asia did not, or 
in the words of a recent pursuer of the same kind of question, Why some 
nations are so rich and some are so poor, the subtitle of the recent book by 
the economic historian, David Landes. An important question, but the 
search got off on the wrong foot. 8 

In the first place, these comparisons were far from global. Weber wrote 
interestingly of China and India. The rest of the world was marked by 
traditional societies, exercising 'traditional authority', hardly a helpful 
sociological or historical concept because they were treated as residual, 
what was left over. India and China were brought into the picture as 
background to Europe's 'capitalism'. Secondly, Marx in his important 
discussion touches upon the analysis of other societies from an economic 
point of view, examining a variety of modes of production and their asso- 
ciated social formations. He had carefully studied Lewis Morgan's Ancient 
society, which was an ambitious attempt to undertake global comparison 
of the range of human societies. Morgan's was one of many efforts to 
construct a more systematic, a better evidenced, history of man's devel- 
opment than had emerged from earlier philosophical efforts such as those 
of Vico or Montesquieu. But while this work represented an improvement 
on the speculative works of the philosophers, it still adopted a teleological 
attitude with regard to Europe. 

Braudel's approach to capitalism, modernization, and industrializa- 
tion, which is indeed global, is presented in the three volumes of his 
major work on Civilization and capitalism 15 th to 18 th century. The first is 
entitled 'The structure of everyday life'; 9 the second 'The wheels of com- 
merce', 10 the third 'The perspective of the world'. 11 The first volume 
deals with what he calls 'material life' which he sees as 'lying underneath 

7 Wallerstein 1974. 8 Goody 2004: chapter 1. 9 Braudel 1981 [1979]. 
10 Braudel 1982 [1979]. u Braudel 1984 [1979]. 

184 Three scholarly perspectives 

the market economy' and comprises what we eat, what we wear, how we 
live. The second level (that of the economy) is the world of the market, 
the world of commerce. The third level, which is a 'shadowy zone' 'hov- 
ering above the market economy', is the world of finance, 'the favoured 
domain of capitalism', and without which it is 'unthinkable'. 12 

Braudel was a historian of the very first rank. His Structures of everyday 
life 13 is described by his colleague Zeldin as 'brilliant' and by another, 
Plumb, as 'a masterpiece'. I want to review one aspect of his work both 
admiringly and critically, from the standpoint of new developments in 
world history which attempt to modify certain eurocentric biases. These 
any western scholar inevitably has. Braudel certainly displays less than, 
say, Weber or Marx and considers a wide range of comparative material 
on everyday life. Moreover he is much subtler about the question of 
European advantage. 

Nevertheless his sources are inevitably largely European and partake 
of some of those prejudices about that advantage. Certain of these are 
minor, others major. Consider some of the minor first, as these set the 
tone of his presentation and in fact refer to wider issues of advantage. Seen 
as 'the great innovation, the revolution in Europe', according to Braudel, 
was not paper but 'alcohol', distilled liquor, though a name like alembic 
clearly indicates an Islamic provenance (ultimately Greek). 14 Neverthe- 
less, referring to the rest of the world, he asks 'Did the still give Europe 
the advantage over these people?' 13 However, Europe was in fact slow to 
adopt distilled alcohol. Leaving that slowness aside, why is it the Euro- 
peans who were considered to have the advantage, even at earlier periods? 
The question seems to have been answered in advance and any alternative 
perspective is missing. For example, other drinks are treated in the same 
way. At about the time of the 'discovery' of alcohol, Europe, supposedly 
at the centre of the innovations of the world, is said by Braudel to have 
discovered new drinks, both stimulants and tonics; that is, coffee, tea, 
and chocolate. But all three came from abroad; coffee was Arab (origi- 
nally Ethiopian); tea, Chinese; chocolate, Mexican. 16 Clearly the sense 
in which Europe 'discovered' these beverages, innovated, is very limited 
indeed; what it did was concerned with marketing and consumption. 
Nevertheless Braudel is led to claim their discovery for Europe, presum- 
ably because of its later 'discovery' of 'capitalism', which promoted both. 
However, later on New Guinea equally could be said to have discovered, 
innovated, these beverages when they arrived on its shores. The idea that 
Europe was ('always'?) at the centre of innovations is greatly exaggerated, 

12 Braudel 1981: 24. 13 Braudel 1981. 14 Braudel 1981: 241. 
15 Braudel 1981: 247. 16 Braudel 1981: 249. 

The theft of capitalism' 185 

especially in the context of food in which they were certainly behind 
China or India; indeed Braudel himself recognizes that 'there was no real 
luxury or sophistication of eating habits in Europe before the fifteenth 
or sixteenth centuries. In this respect Europe lagged behind the other 
Old World civilisations.' 1 ' That comment seems to be correct. Wherein, 
therefore, lies the European advantage in this sphere? 

He seems particularly eurocentric about matters to do with the house, 
including food. In relation to the consumption of meat, Europe had 'a 
privileged position' relative to other societies. 18 So too of course did 
hunters and gatherers. Equally, we could take a different standpoint and 
assert that China and India were privileged, in a more ecologically friendly 
way, with regard to the consumption of fruit and vegetables. Preferences 
for a vegetarian diet are given no value, whether based on taste, religion, 
or morality. As with beverages the spread of commodities like sugar and 
spices round the world is dealt with basically from a European point 
of view, even though all these items were discovered by others. Braudel 
quotes with approval the writer Labat, who remarks of the Arabs that they 
did not know the use of tables; it might equally be claimed that Europe 
did not have the divan or the carpet until they arrived from the east. The 
'advantage' is always seen as European (which it may have been later in 
terms of distribution and marketing). His section on 'the slow adoption of 
good manners' 19 in Europe seems to show a similar kind of bias as Elias's 
in favour of European behaviour, for it is widely thought by others that at 
an earlier period the Far East had a more elaborate and exacting etiquette. 
He quotes one European observer as saying the Christians do not sit on 
the ground like animals, 20 implying that others did and were. The table 
and chair 'implied a whole way of life' 21 and were not present in early 
China until after the sixth century. The chair 'was probably European in 
origin', for the sitting-up position is said not to be found in non-European 
countries and represented 'a new art of living'. Whether or not that was 
the case (and the statement seems very dubious), to give this change in 
the sixth century such an importance (a change in 'life-styles') is hardly 
compatible with the view that Chinese society was unchanging and 'stood 
still', 22 a conclusion that he derives from the consideration of one fea- 
ture, clothing, the use of which is certainly not a general factor in human 
behaviour. 23 

His argument is that changing fashion indicates a dynamic society, 
following the opinion of Say in 1829 24 who wrote disparagingly about the 

17 Braudel 1981: 187. 18 Braudel 1981: 199. 19 Braudel 1981: 206. 
20 Braudel 1981: 285. 21 Braudel 1981: 288. 22 Braudel 1981: 312. 
23 Bray 2000. 24 Say 1829. 

186 Three scholarly perspectives 

'unchanging fashions of the Turks and other Eastern peoples', that 'their 
fashions tend to preserve their stupid despotism'. 23 It is an argument 
that could apply equally to our own villagers, who wore the same clothes 
day in and day out and rarely changed them, and perhaps to all those 
men who wear evening dress on special occasions. However, even when 
changes occurred in Europe, such 'fashionable whims' only affected a 
small number of persons and then did not become 'all-powerful' until 
after 1700, when people broke away from 'the still waters of ancient 
situations like those we described in India, China and Islam'. 26 Change 
was on the side of the privileged few but nevertheless he does not consider 
fashion to be frivolous, rather as 'an indication of deeper phenomena': 27 
the future belonged to societies that were prepared 'to break with their 
traditions'. The Orient was static, but then only recently has the Occident 
been characterized by movement, which rather contradicts his notion that 
cultures differed in this respect over the long term. Braudel is scarcely 
consistent on this issue since the recourse to fashion is also the result 
of 'material progress'. 28 One example is the way the silk merchants of 
Lyons exploited 'the tyranny of French fashion' in the eighteenth century 
by employing 'silk illustrators' who changed the patterns every year, too 
quickly for the Italians to copy. 29 By this time silk production had been 
present in Sicily and Andalusia for almost seven hundred years, spreading 
in the sixteenth century, together with the mulberry, to Tuscany, Veneto, 
and down the Rhone Valley. Genoa and Venice had also long imported 
raw silk from the Near East as well as cotton in the form of yarn or raw 
bales. Not only the materials but also the techniques came from the so- 
called 'static' East. The subject of fashion is obviously related not only 
to change but also to luxury, in which context it will be treated at greater 
length in chapter 9. 

In other ways too Braudel is in two minds on the subject of change. 
He argues convincingly for the rapid spread of American crops, such 
as tobacco, throughout the world, as happened with other consumables 
such as coffee, tea, and cocoa. Nevertheless, the static east is continuously 
contrasted with the dynamic west, the implication being that the innova- 
tions required for capitalism could not develop outside Europe. Braudel 
posits an opposition between changing societies and static ones. 30 The 
dichotomy is totally unacceptable; rhythms of change certainly vary and 
have become increasingly rapid. But the idea of an unchanging soci- 
ety (objectively, whatever the actors may think) seems to me out of the 

25 Braudel 1981: 314. 26 Braudel 1981: 316. 27 Braudel 1981: 323. 
28 Braudel 1981: 324. 29 As Poni (2001a and b) had pointed out. 
30 Braudel 1981: 430,435. 

The theft of capitalism' 187 

question, as I have argued especially for religion and for long myths; 31 
even technology in simple societies has changed over time, from Neolithic 
to Mesolithic for example. That does not mean there might not be block- 
ages from time to time, but never 'blocked systems' as a whole. 

The notion that some societies are more prepared than others to change 
may be correct for specific periods and for specific contexts but it is man- 
ifestly an error to cast all Asia in this mould. At least until the sixteenth 
century China was probably more 'dynamic' than Europe (supposing one 
could agree upon a satisfactory measure). Braudel's concept of 'civiliza- 
tion' and 'culture' would tend to suggest that such differences in speed 
of change characterized 'la longue duree'; I would place them more at 
the 'historical' level of 'events', pertaining to the 'conjuncturaP rather 
than the 'civilizational'. To do otherwise seems to project back in time 
Europe's undoubted differences (and in some respects advantages) in 
the nineteenth century. In that case why should we not equally be pre- 
pared to do the same for the convergences of societies in the twentieth 
and twenty-first? The argument has already been made for Japan that 
her earlier 'feudalism' enabled her more easily to develop 'capitalism'. 
Should not the same argument be applied to China, Korea, Malaysia, 
and a host of others? 

Yet he nevertheless comes out with the notion that elsewhere there 
are 'static, inward-looking', that is, poor, civilizations. Only the west is 
distinguished by uninterrupted change. 'In the West', he writes, 'every- 
thing was constantly changing'. 32 He sees this as a long-standing feature. 
For example, furniture varied country by country, witness to a 'broad 
economic and cultural movement carrying Europe towards what it itself 
christened the Enlightenment, progress'/ 3 And a few lines later: 'If it is 
established for Europe, the richest civilization and the one most ready 
to change, it will apply a fortiori to the rest'. While it is true that Europe 
may have been more ready to change in recent times (some would say 
after the Industrial Revolution, others would insist on the Renaissance), 
there is no evidence that Europe was more likely to change in earlier peri- 
ods. Yet this formulation of Braudel's, whatever qualifications he intro- 
duces elsewhere, whatever contradictory evidence he produces, rests on 
a contrast between dynamic Europe and 'static' Asia that he regards as 
long-standing if not permanent. The west has appropriated the notion of 
change and adaptability for itself. 

For Braudel capitalism pertains to the urban sphere, from which it 
spread to the countryside. Rural economies he looks upon as stagnant 
unless spurred on from the outside. He asks if western towns would have 

31 Goody and Gandah 2002. 32 Braudel 1981: 293. 33 Braudel 1981: 294. 

188 Three scholarly perspectives 

been able to subsist if the 'absurd Chinese-type tillage had been the rule 
instead of the exception' 34 - that tillage for rice production was carried 
out with hand tools rather than the plough. However this 'absurdity' of 
course was the mark of a very intensive, very 'advanced' agriculture that 
allowed higher population densities and larger towns than in Europe, 
partly because it did not devote space to the larger domestic livestock 
needed to pull the ploughs. Indeed it is perverse to wonder whether west- 
ern towns could 'subsist under such conditions', for these were so differ- 
ent. 3d He sees capitalism as reaching the countryside when agriculture 
is linked to exports, when crops are grown for cash. That constituted an 
'invasion'. 36 But his notion neglects the fact that rural producers already 
build up their 'capital' by investing in terracing, in irrigation, and in many 
other ways. Or in Europe through increasing their herds, which were the 
very model for 'capital'. But for him the notion of capitalist is tied up 
with the investment of money that more than reproduces itself, rather 
than with labour or productive techniques. Here too Europe was consid- 
ered unique. While he recognizes the dynamic nature of crafts in India 
and China, he comments that they never produced the 'high quality' 
of tools that marked Europe. In China, human labour was perhaps too 
plentiful, 37 a common but fallacious thought. 38 In any case the rice agri- 
culture of the south demanded more intensive techniques of planting and 
transplanting than cereal cultivation in the north; it was not simply that 
mechanization was 'blocked by cheap labour'. 39 Tools were introduced. 
The wheelbarrow was Chinese; the bridle probably Mongol (pace Lynn 
White 40 ). Water-mills were certainly not confined to Europe; windmills 
may have come from China or Iran. The Chinese were also far ahead in 
the production of iron and the use of coal, though Braudel refers to the 
country's 'stagnation after the thirteenth century', especially with regard 
to the use of coke. 41 His comment is that earlier 'the Chinese advance is 
hard to explain'. 42 But that is surely the case only if one is looking at the 
world from a nineteenth-century eurocentric standpoint. 

One of the problems that according to Braudel held back China was 
that it did not possess 'a complicated monetary system' required for 
production and exchange; 43 only 'medieval Europe finally perfected its 
money', curiously because these societies had to exchange with one 
another and with the Muslim world. This perfection envisaged in Europe 
was due to the growth of towns and of capitalism, as well as 'the conquest 

34 Braudel 1981: 338. 35 Braudel 1981: 338. 36 Braudel 1984: 288. 
37 Braudel 1984: 304. 38 Hobson 2004: 201ff. 39 Braudel 1981: 339. 
40 White 1962. 41 Braudel 1981: 375. 42 Braudel 1981: 376. 
43 Braudel 1981: 440. 

The theft of capitalism' 189 

of the high seas' which produced 'a world supremacy that lasted for cen- 
turies'. 44 Europe, faced with a Muslim challenge, produced a perfect 
monetary system; the other parts of Eurasia 'represented intermediate 
stages half-way towards an active and complete monetary life'. 43 That 
claim to uniqueness was puzzling in some ways because 'the maritime 
civilizations had always known about each other', at least in Eurasia. The 
Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean formed 'a single stretch of sea', the 
'route to the Indies', which had earlier included a connection between 
the two, known as Nechao's Canal in Suez, but later filled up. However, 
Egypt always provided a point of communication between east and west. 
So they should have been exchanging information about making silk cloth 
or about printing as well as the goods themselves. Nevertheless it was the 
conquest of the high seas that supposedly gave Europe an advantage. 
Long-distance trade, large-scale commercial capitalism, he importantly 
observes, depended on the ability to speak a common 'language of world 
trade', inducing 'constructive change' and rapid accumulation. In other 
words this trade involved exchange. Despite the trend towards equality, 
reciprocity, and change, Europe nevertheless has to be distinguished in his 
view from 'the half-way economies' of Asia. So that, despite his compar- 
ative aims, Braudel consistently seeks to explore the east in relation to the 
west's advantages, which he sees as long-standing, often as cultural, quasi- 
permanent. As a good historian he is constantly led into contradictions 
and inconsistencies. Unchanging India used precious metals and experi- 
enced 'an enormous burst of industrialization' with regard to cotton in the 
sixteenth century but the economy was marked by 'monetary chaos'. 46 
Equally China can only be understood 'in the context of the primitive 
neighbouring economies' 47 which account for both 'the backwardness of 
China itself and 'at the same time a certain strength of its "dominant" 
monetary system'. That strength, it should be noted, included the inven- 
tion of paper money long before the west had any paper at all, though 
even in China it was only used extensively in the fourteenth century. The 
contradictions abound. Despite China's 'backwardness' under the Ming 
(1368-1644), 'a monetary and capitalist economy was coming to life, 
developing and extending its interests and services', leading to the rush 
on the Chinese coalmines in 1596. 48 Those developments must qualify 
its backwardness and make it difficult to take Braudel's word, as he asks 
us to (but inconsistently), that 'in monetary matters China was more 
primitive and less sophisticated than India', 49 which as we have seen had 
'monetary chaos'. But what about Europe? The latter continent is said to 

44 Braudel 1981: 402. 45 Braudel 1981: 448. 46 Braudel 1981: 450. 
47 Braudel 1981: 452. 48 Braudel 1981: 454. 49 Braudel 1981: 457. 

190 Three scholarly perspectives 

'stand alone'. Nevertheless Braudel admits that 'these [monetary] oper- 
ations were not confined to Europe' but were 'extended and introduced 
over the whole world like a vast net thrown over the wealth of other con- 
tinents'. With the import of American treasures, 'Europe was beginning 
to devour, to digest the world', so that 'all the currencies of the world 
were enmeshed in the same net'. That advantage was not new; indeed 'a 
long period of pressure after the thirteenth century' 'raised the level of its 
material life' 30 as a result of 'a hunger to conquer the world', 'a hunger for 
gold' or spices, accompanied by a growth in utilitarian knowledge. But 
Europe needed that gold because it had so little by way of manufactured 
goods to give to the east in return for its 'luxuries', which became more 
and more available to the middle classes. If China was indeed backward, 
as Braudel claims, why was it that precious metals were leaving the west- 
ern circuits for Asia? 31 It clearly was not only Europe that had 'a hunger 
for gold'. The east knew what it wanted and how to get it by peaceful 
means, namely, by trade. 

Towns and the economy 

The core of Braudel's analysis is centred upon towns and cities, dis- 
cussed in chapter 8, which he compares to electric transformers, con- 
stantly recharging human life. Once again, they have obviously consti- 
tuted a world-wide phenomenon ever since the Bronze Age, but Europe 
is held to be different. However he asserts that 'a town is always a town' 
and is characterized by 'an ever-changing division of labour'; there is 
also an ever-changing population since towns have to recruit inhabitants 
because of their failure to reproduce themselves. 32 He writes of the self- 
consciousness of towns resulting from the need for secure walls (and the 
dangers that artillery in the west brought from the fifteenth century 53 ), 
of urban communication and of the hierarchies among the towns them- 
selves. However, despite a recognition of these common features, that 
does not stop him (or for that matter Goitein on the Near East 34 ) from 
following Max Weber in drawing a distinction between the western town 
with its 'freedoms' and the static Asian cities without them. Obviously 
there were differences but these authors locate them on the ideological 
level because they are interested in the teleological result, the advent of 
capitalism. His main thrust therefore has to do with 'the originality of 
Western towns', as we saw in chapter 4. They displayed, he argues, 'an 
unparalleled freedom' 33 developing in opposition to the state and ruling 

50 Braudel 1981: 415. 51 Braudel 1981: 462. 52 Braudel 1981: 490. 
53 Braudel 1981: 497. 54 Goitein 1967. 55 Braudel 1981: 510. 

The theft of 'capitalism' 191 

'autocratically' over the surrounding countryside. As a result their evo- 
lution was 'turbulent' compared with the static nature of cities in other 
parts of the world; change was encouraged. But in fact the Asian city was 
equally turbulent and far from static, as recent research (for example, in 
Damascus and Cairo) shows. 

After the decay of the urban framework of the Roman empire which 
we discussed in chapter 3, western towns revived in the eleventh cen- 
tury by which time there had already been 'a rise in rural vigour' 36 said 
to bring into the towns both nobles and churchmen; that marked 'the 
beginning of the continent's rise to eminence'. 37 That revival was pos- 
sible because of the improving economy and the growing use of money. 
'Merchants, craft guilds, industries, long-distance trade and banks were 
quick to appear there, as well as a certain kind of bourgeoisie and some 
sort of capitalism.' 38 In Italy and Germany towns outgrew the state, form- 
ing 'city-states'. 'The miracle of the West', it is said, was that when towns 
arose anew they displayed great autonomy. On the basis of this 'liberty', 
'a distinctive civilization' was built up. The towns organized taxation, 
invented public loans, organized industry and accountancy, becoming 
the scene of 'class struggles' and 'the focus for patriotism'. 39 They expe- 
rienced the development of bourgeois society, which according to the 
economist Sombart was characterized by a new state of mind appear- 
ing in Florence at the end of the fourteenth century. 60 'A new state of 
mind was established, broadly that of an early, still faltering, Western 
capitalism' accomplished in 'the art both of getting rich and of living'. 
Its characteristics also included 'gambling and risk'; 'the merchant . . . 
calculated his expenditure according to his returns'. 61 Of course, all mer- 
chants had to do that, otherwise they would not survive. They also had 
to calculate risks, which made them particularly committed to games of 
chance and gambling, as in China. 

Braudel sees the key to capitalism as lying in the development of towns, 
which in Europe encouraged 'freedom' and provided a centre for rural 
artisanal activity. Despite phases of 'capitalist' activity, he claims, China 
never succeeded either in providing the necessary freedom or in attract- 
ing the rural artisans. His argument requires two contrasting models of 
urban-rural relationships, the independent and self-sufficient town with 
a countryside that serves its needs (the western model) and a town that is 
the home of officialdom, parasitical and dependent on the more dynamic 
countryside - the eastern model. However, the opposition is inadequate 
because China's towns were also centres of activity, for academics, literati, 

56 Braudel 1981: 510. 57 Braudel 1981: 479. 58 Braudel 1981: 511. 
59 Braudel 1981: 512. 60 Sombart 1930. 61 Braudel 1981: 514. 

192 Three scholarly perspectives 

and merchants as well as administrators. Secondly, to exclude the coun- 
try from 'capitalist' activity is to restrict the definition of such activity in a 
questionable way; that took place in Europe and the Chinese countryside 
was the home to a vigorous regime and great achievements which required 
the investment of considerable capital. Indeed it is now obvious from 
contemporary China that the country had most of the requirements for 
'modernization' . 

While he praises the particular 'freedom' of European towns, Braudel 
produces a developmental scheme that runs from classical towns, open 
to and equal with the surrounding countryside, in which 'industry was 
rudimentary', 62 to the 'closed city' of the medieval period, populated by 
peasants who had freed themselves from one servitude to be subjected to 
another, and finally to the 'subjugated towns of early modern times'. 63 
However, the state everywhere 'disciplined the towns', the Hapsburgs 
and German princes just as much as the Popes and the Medicis. 'Except 
in the Netherlands and England, obedience was imposed.' Given the 
fact that the two latter countries had centralized monarchies and that 
the 'free' city states of the medieval period in Germany and Italy are 
now listed as 'subjugated', the concept of the 'free' western town needs 
to be qualified. That does not prevent Braudel, like Weber and Marx 
before him, from claiming a dramatic contrast with the 'imperial towns' 
of the east. In Islam we find some towns of a similar kind to the west but 
these are described as 'marginal' and short-lived like Cordoba or Oran, 
though that marginality is open to doubt; indeed even Braudel refers to 
Ceuta in north Africa as an urban republic. In 'distant' Asia, imperial 
cities were 'enormous, parasitical, soft and luxurious'. 'The usual pat- 
tern was the huge city under the rule of a prince or a Caliph: a Baghdad 
or a Cairo.' 64 They were 'incapable of taking over the artisanal trades 
from the countryside', not because of the nature of authority itself but 
because 'society was prematurely fixed, crystallized in a certain mould' 
(thus always returning to the question of cultural change and stasis). 
In India the problem lay with the castes, in China with the clans. In 
China, he claims, there was no authority to represent the town against 
state or countryside; 'the rural areas were the real heart of living, active 
and thinking China'. However, it is clear that government officials cer- 
tainly represented the towns, where they lived, as well as the countryside 
and that much activity took place in those urban centres. Moreover, the 
notion that caste and clan impeded the progress of towns follows Weber's 
analysis that these institutions inhibited the development of capitalism 
because they were collective rather than encouraging individualism. The 

62 Braudel 1981: 515. 63 Braudel 1981: 519. 64 Braudel 1981: 524. 

The theft of capitalism' 193 

theme is certainly overstated by Braudel especially as he sees merchant 
dynasties as an essential element in the accumulation of capital. 65 But in 
any case Indian towns contained important populations of Jains and Par- 
sis who were often marginal to the caste system and very important for 
commerce. What is really problematic in his work and that of other west- 
erners is the characterization of the eastern and by contrast the western 
towns. 66 

The notion of freedom associated with the town has two aspects. 
Wherever it occurred, country dwellers moving to the towns entered 
an environment that contained less restraints than the closer one they 
had left. But in particular societies, there is also the question of how 
far towns were constrained by wider political authorities. Obviously in 
city-states, whether in Europe or in western Asia, the towns as such were 
not tightly controlled, although mercantile activity might be restricted; 
but the restrictions were not imposed by an external authority, as in some 
larger state systems. By the nineteenth century western towns were firmly 
part of such a nation state. It is clear that the degree of 'freedom' of towns 
varied in different societies at different times and it may possibly be the 
case that in the later west this was in general greater than elsewhere. Euro- 
pean societies certainly had 'villes tranches' which were partially 'freed' 
from government taxation with the aim of encouraging commerce. In the 
east too some towns, especially ports, were less controlled than others. 
Braudel does not definitively demonstrate that pre-industrial towns in 
other parts of the world were in general less free and more static. Indeed 
many others seem just as 'turbulent' as European ones, in some cases 
more so. 

That towns in the east and west should have run parallel courses in this 
respect is quite understandable. Urbanization, writes Braudel, is 'the sign 
of modern man'. 6 ' If so, modernity began a long way back, at least in the 
Bronze Age, though it has been becoming more modern ever since. As 
Braudel often insists, no town was an island; it did not stand alone but was 
part of a much wider set of relationships, necessarily so as one of its fre- 
quent characteristics was long-distance trade. And such trade involved 
a plurality of partners from different 'civilizations' who exchanged not 
only 'material products' but ways of creating them, a process that was 
marked by the transfer of ideas. On the basis of the assumption that 
such exchange was taking place, which seems obvious enough, we can 

65 Goody 1996: 138. 

66 However, capitalist activity also took place in the villages, especially when the latter 
provide water power for the mills and labour power to man them, as so frequently in the 
nineteenth century in southern France or in the eastern United States. 

67 Braudel 1981: 556. 

194 Three scholarly perspectives 

account not simply for 'distinctive' civilizations but for the parallelism 
between them, such as the emergence of towns throughout Eurasia, with 
the creation of a bourgeoisie and of roughly parallel kinds of artistic devel- 
opment (though parallel evolution is of course possible). This happens 
both with painting and literature, as well as with religion. Christianity 
travels from the Near East to Europe and to Asia. So too does Islam. 
Buddhism goes from India to China and Japan as well as marginally to 
the Near East. The movements of these great religious ideologies would 
not have been possible unless there was some common ground in which 
this could happen, especially regarding urbanization. 68 

As discussed above, Braudel's general view of eastern towns was that 
they are 'enormous, parasitical, soft and luxurious'; 69 they were the res- 
idences of officials and nobles rather than the property of the guilds or 
merchants. In reality western towns also provided residences for nobles 
and officials and were not owned by guilds or merchants. It is not easy 
to see the difference. Towns became somewhat 'freer' in parts of the 
west but many would dispute the absence of wider governmental control 
other than in 'city-states'. 'Freedom' was seen as critical to the effec- 
tive role (indeed often to the emergence) of a 'bourgeoisie', intrinsic to 
the changes needed for the development of capitalism; the bourgeois 
is usually considered by western scholars as a uniquely European fea- 
ture, like the incessant change that Wallerstein considers as the key to 
the 'spirit of capitalism'. Braudel admits that at times the Chinese state 
'nodded' at the end of the sixteenth century, allowing the emergence of 
a bourgeoisie 'with a taste for business enterprise'. 70 In China the state 
nods; in the west the growth of the bourgeoisie is deemed natural. Mean- 
while the various features he calls attention to in the 'free markets' of 
the west, that is, organized industry, guilds, long-distance trade, bills of 
exchange, trading companies, accountancy, 71 all these were also present 
in China and India, as recent historians like Pomeranz and Habib have 
pointed out. 72 India too had a complex system of trade that involved 
money-changing, equivalent to that in the west and including hundi or 
bills of exchange. 'Since the fourteenth century, India had possessed a 
monetary-economy of some vitality, which was soon on the way towards 
a certain capitalism.' 73 Braudel appears to contradict early remarks about 

However, the problem with the interactionist explanation of social evolution is that it 
neglects the parallel developments in the comparatively isolated New World which also 
achieved its urban civilization. While interaction is important, we also have to consider 
explanation in terms of the logic of internal developments. That certainly occurred in 
some commercial as in some artistic activities. 

69 Braudel 1981: 524. 70 Braudel 1981: 524. 71 Braudel 1981: 512. 

72 Pomeranz 2000; Habib 1990. 73 Braudel 1984: 124. 

The theft of capitalism' 195 

its chaotic monetary system, for this 'certain capitalism' is recognized to 
be a 'genuine capitalism' 74 -with 'wholesalers, the rentiers of trade, and 
their thousands of auxiliaries - the commission agents, brokers, money- 
changers and bankers. As for the techniques, possibilities or guarantees 
of exchange, any of these groups of merchants would stand compari- 
son with its western equivalents.' Not only were these features present in 
towns but they appeared before the rebirth of towns in eleventh-century 
Europe. Nevertheless Braudel still sees something lacking. For, in his 
view these did not constitute 'a distinctive civilization', a notion that is 
essential to his idea of the European genesis of capitalism, of true cap- 
italism with its 'mighty networks' as distinct from the more widespread 
'micro-capitalism' . 73 

There is some confusion here. 'Mighty networks' of the kind to which 
Braudel refers arrived only with industrial capitalism, though trade came 
well before. But he has throughout emphasized developments between 
the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, which are presumably 'micro- 
capitalist'. This is when the question of the 'free worlds' of towns was 
relevant in the generation of 'real capitalism'. The problem is that while 
he sees capitalist activity as present in many earlier societies, he feels the 
need to express Europe's dominance in the nineteenth century in terms of 
the quality of its capitalism, that is, real capitalism, and then search tele- 
ologically for distinguishing factors in its formation, a procedure which 
leads him to a variety of contradictions. But in terms of pre-existing con- 
ditions which might have led to 'true capitalism' in the west, the whole of 
Eurasia seems roughly the same, even if the terms are used to distinguish 
east and west. Towns were everywhere present but 'real' towns existed 
only in the west; only there did 'freedom' win the day, a freedom that 
was seen as necessary to mercantile endeavour and to the advancement 
of production. 

If one understands a generalized capitalism, as Braudel does, to be a 
feature of all towns and their commerce, then the argument about the 
uniqueness of the west loses much of its force. Later towns and their 
activities developed out of earlier ones in all their various facets, that 
is, not only commercial and manufacturing, but also administrative and 
educational, all relating to the uses of literacy and subject to a process 
of social development (or social 'evolution'). For it was the towns that 
were the literate centres, including for the production of literature, of 
written religion, and of textual knowledge, the last of which made an 
important contribution to the emergence of industrial capitalism in its 
various successive forms assisting as it did the process of invention, of 

74 Braudel 1984: 486. 75 Braudel 1981: 562. 

196 Three scholarly perspectives 

product development, and of exchange. The town was much more than 
a centre for merchants and their commerce, essential as they were to its 
economic well-being. 

Finance capitalism 

Let me turn more specifically to Braudel's discussion of the development 
of capitalism. We have seen earlier in the chapter how he separates the 
'material life' underlying the market economy from the world of com- 
merce and that again from the world of finance, 'the favoured domain of 
capitalism'. 76 In this hierarchical and chronological ordering of capital- 
ism, it is at the third level of finance capitalism that he perceives Europe as 
taking the lead, indeed as being unique. We have seen the contradictions 
in Braudel's position regarding Europe and the rest of Eurasia. Sometimes 
they are considered equal, but at other times he suggests that Europe had 
an advantage well before the Industrial Revolution. In fact that seems to 
be his more general stance. He talks of a European capitalism that differs 
from market activity itself in that it occupied the 'commanding position 
at the pinnacle of the trading community'. Capitalism elsewhere seems 
in his eyes to be more restricted. Full or true capitalism was 'invariably 
borne along by a general context greater than itself, on whose shoulders 
it was carried upwards and onwards'. 77 Part of the general context was 
long-distance trade which was 'an unrivalled machine for the rapid repro- 
duction and increase of capital',' 8 and one the economist Dobb saw as 
critical to the creation of a merchant bourgeoisie.' 9 In other words capi- 
talism was always concerned not simply with money and credit but with 
finance, with money that reproduces itself. 80 

Braudel associates an emerging finance capitalism with the fair, which 
he views as a purely European phenomenon: 'progress forward in the six- 
teenth century must have been achieved from above, under the impact of 
the top-level circulation of money and credit, from one fair to another'. 81 
The fairs and markets provided ways of financing exchange and set- 
tling accounts, and were of course active much earlier and elsewhere. 
Fairs were obviously very important in the west, not only for the sale 
of goods but for the financial transactions that resulted, as in Cham- 
pagne. However they also existed in the east. Treaties between the Sultan 
of Egypt and Venice or Florence even lay down 'a kind of law for the 

76 Braudel 1981: 24. 77 Braudel 1984: 374. 
78 Braudel 1984: 405. 79 Dobb 1954. 

80 Despite this trend, much of the early wealth of Europe went into religious activity rather 
than into earthly investment. 

81 Braudel 1982: 135. 

The theft of capitalism' 197 

fairs' 'not unlike the regulations governing fairs in the West'. 82 Trading 
in the Near East was as vigorous as elsewhere. Muslim cities 'had more 
markets . . . than any city in the West'. 8j Special quarters were reserved 
for foreign merchants in Alexandria and Syria, as was the case in Venice. 
In Aleppo and Istanbul, too, khans or hostelries existed for European 
nationalities as well as for traders from the east. Fairs were also impor- 
tant elsewhere in the world. In India they were often combined with 
pilgrimages; in the Near East the annual pilgrimage to Mecca coincided 
with the biggest fair in Islam. In Indonesia the Chinese were present 
at similar fairs and their long-distance traffic 'was in no way inferior to 
the European equivalent'. 84 In China itself fairs were said to be 'closely 
supervised', being controlled by a 'ubiquitous, efficient and bureaucratic 
government'; nevertheless 'markets were comparatively free'. These fairs 
were often linked to the festivals at Buddhist or Taoist temples. 83 So in 
the sixteenth century, Braudel concludes contrary to his other statements, 
'the populated regions of the world, faced with the demands of numbers, 
seem to us to be quite close to each other, on terms of equality or nearly 
so'. 86 

This equality extends to the fact that, in the sphere of trade, change was 
constantly taking place in the east as much as in the west. Urban and com- 
mercial life were always developing. The question of convergence was not 
simply a matter of numbers but of the parallel social evolution of the econ- 
omy, of communication as with other spheres of cultural activity. The gap 
with the west only appeared relatively late in time but nevertheless consti- 
tutes 'the essential problem of the history of the modern world'. Will that 
gap be really important in another fifty years and if not, how 'essential' 
was it? But for Braudel the real take-off for Europe came during the Age 
of Enlightenment, after 1720. He argues that 'The two outstanding fea- 
tures of Western development were first the establishment of the higher 
mechanism of trade, then in the eighteenth century, the proliferation of 
ways and means.' 8 ' In China however, he claims, 'the imperial admin- 
istration blocked any attempts to create an economic hierarchy' above 
the lowest level of shops and markets. Following the general European 
view, it was Islam and Japan that most resembled Europe. In all this he 
says little about production, only finance. However, in fact all mercantile 
and manufacturing activity, whether in China or elsewhere, required a 
combination of production and distribution, both of them requiring con- 
siderable finance. Braudel acknowledges that what the Europeans found 
when they arrived in the east was large-scale trade and cannot be properly 

82 Braudel 1982: 128. 83 Braudel 1982: 129. 84 Braudel 1982: 130. 
85 Braudel 1982: 131. 86 Braudel 1982: 134. 87 Braudel 1982: 136. 

198 Three scholarly perspectives 

described in terms of peddling, as Leur had claimed. 88 It was much more 
important than that word implies. Many traders were contracted to large 
shareholders; the commenda (a maritime partnership) existed in the east 
as it did in the Mediterranean. 89 Eastern merchants who included Per- 
sians and Armenians visited Venice and were certainly trading on similar 
terms. 90 It is of course true that production, distribution, and finance 
become more complex over time, in Europe as elsewhere, but Braudel 
wants to make a categorical distinction between finance capitalism and 
other forms, which does not seem altogether satisfactory. 

As we have seen, according to Braudel, 'true capitalism' only really 
developed in Europe, and possibly in Japan. The reasons for that 
restricted growth were political and 'historical' rather than economic and 
social. They related to the conditions under which over the long term 
great bourgeois families could accumulate wealth within dynasties, the 
reasons for which went far back in history. In the conclusion of his sec- 
ond volume, he criticizes both Weber and Sombart for considering that 
an explanation of capitalism 'had to have something to do with the struc- 
tural superiority of the western "mind"'. 91 What would have happened, 
he asks, if Chinese junks had sailed round the Cape in 1419, roughly 
eighty years before de Gama? However the use of the word 'junks' seems 
to represent a certain ambivalence with regard to those countries which 
had junks rather than ships. The fact has to be faced, he argues, that 
'capitalism succeeded in Europe, made a beginning in Japan and failed 
in almost everywhere else' - or failed to reach completion. 92 What does he 
mean by failure? The reference to the singularity of Japan may have been 
valid when Braudel was writing. By the time the book had been translated 
into English, the situation in the east had changed significantly with the 
emergence of the Asian Tigers, and indeed the widespread extension of 
the economies even in mainland China and India. 

Braudel in fact recognized the vitality of Chinese long-distance trade in 
sixteenth-century Fukien when this thriving economy is contrasted with 
the 'stagnation' of the interior. So 'a certain form of Chinese capital- 
ism . . . could only reach its true dimensions if it escaped from the rigid 
controls of the Chinese mainland'. 93 Because 'in China, the chief obsta- 
cle was the state with its close-knit bureaucracy'. 94 The government in 
theory owned all land (though private land-ownership went back to the 
Han), and 'even the nobility depended on the goodwill of the state'. Every 
town was patrolled. Only mandarins 'were above the law'. The state had 
the right to mint coinage - 'accumulation could only be achieved by the 

88 Leur 1955. 89 Constable 1994: 67ff. 90 Braudel 1984: 124. 

91 Braudel 1984: 581. 92 Braudel 1984: 581-2. 93 Braudel 1984: 582. 

94 Braudel 1984: 586. 

The theft of capitalism' 199 

state'. Indeed merchants might be demonized by the literati for an out- 
ward display of wealth. While China had a flourishing market economy, 
at the upper levels the state controlled all, 'So there could be no cap- 
italism, except within certain clearly-defined groups.' 93 Many of those 
limitations were certainly not confined to China and marked even the 
'progressive' societies of Europe. Nor is the intervention of the state nec- 
essarily harmful to the growth of the economy. In Japan and especially 
in contemporary (as in earlier) China, the state has played an important 
role in developing the economy. 

Economically east and west may have been more or less equals, and 
here his analysis represents a great advance on that of many earlier 'world 
historians', including Marx and Weber. Politically, however, there was 
something lacking. 'Despotic' is an adjective that he uses for the Chi- 
nese, Indian, and Turkish cases, but never with regard to European states, 
which are 'absolutist'. Merchants existed in the east but were never 'free' 
in the same sense as their European counterparts; again the word 'free- 
dom' comes up only in the context of the inhabitants of Europe. Nor is 
it only used of the merchants. His western bias comes out very clearly 
in statements such as 'the only free or quasi-free peasants were to be 
found in the heart of the West'. 96 As with 'despotic' the distinction is cat- 
egorical, raising problems we have remarked upon in chapter 4; in some 
societies peasants are seen as free, in others they are not. And freedom is 
also believed to be a characteristic of the position of western merchants, 
unlike the situation of eastern ones, whether in towns and in the country 
at large. But recent research on the Asian city, for example by Rowe 97 in 
China or Gillion in India, 98 seems to contradict his Weberian claim, as 
does Ho Ping-ti's work on 'commercial capitalism' among salt-merchants 
in eighteenth century China 99 or Chin-heong Ng's study of the Amoy 
network on the coast, as well as Chan 100 on mandarins and merchants. 
Merchants had more room to operate than he recognizes; and the literati 
were certainly not all bureaucrats. 101 Country and town were more dif- 
ferentiated than Braudel suggests; although many scholars have written 
of 'the gentry' as a group, others have written of peasant revolts. 102 What 
I would regard as a mistaken account in Braudel of the social structure 
of these countries goes hand in hand with a correct appreciation of their 
economic situation. 

However he accepts that there was a bourgeoisie ('after a fashion') 
under the Ming, as well as a 'colonial capitalism' in the East Indies. But 
he claims the power of the state was not checked by the presence of a 

95 Braudel 1984: 589. 96 Braudel 1984b: 40. 97 Rowe 1984. 
98 Gillion 1968. 99 Ho Ping-ti 1954. 10 ° Chan 1977. 
101 See Ching-Tzu Wu 1973. 102 For example, Chesneaux 1976. 

200 Three scholarly perspectives 

feudal regime as in Japan. 103 In that country one finds a kind of 'anar- 
chy', like medieval Europe, bustling with 'liberties'. In Japan the regime 
was not totalitarian, as he claims was the case in China, but rather 'feu- 
dal'. 'So [in Japan] everything conspired [e.g. in the trappings of a regular 
Stock Exchange] to produce a kind of early capitalism', 104 emerging from 
a market economy with the development of long-distance trade. Equally 
in India and the East Indies, 'All the typical features of Europe at the same 
time were present: capital, merchandise, brokers, wholesale merchants, 
banking, the instruments of business, even the artisanal proletariat, even 
the workshops very similar to manufactories, . . . even domestic working 
for merchants handled by special brokers . . . and even, lastly, long- 
distance trade.' 103 But this 'high tension trading' was only present in cer- 
tain places, not generalized throughout the society. One wonders, along 
with Pomeranz, if that is ever true of large units, or even of Britain. 

In Braudel's account (as for most western scholars) feudalism 'pre- 
pared the way for capitalism'. In my view, that notion simply reflects 
the European chronology and is without any causal significance. But 
for Braudel, under the feudal dispensation merchant families were con- 
demned to be second-class citizens and had to fight against that status, 
condemned to practise thrift, thus initiating the move to capitalism. India 
is said to have lacked such families, as did China and Islam. One needed a 
developed market economy for capitalism but the latter only emerges in a 
certain kind of society which 'had created a favourable environment from 
far back in time'. 106 These societies all had the kind of hierarchies and 
dynasties which encouraged the accumulation of wealth. Were such fam- 
ilies in fact absent from China, India, and Islam? That is not credible, as 
we see from the account of Ahmedebad and of many families in the Near 
East. Such merchant families existed and accumulated wealth. Braudel 
excludes that possibility because he excludes the possibility of 'true cap- 
italism' developing elsewhere. The cultural genes were against it. The 
origins of capitalism were laid down in the distant origins of cultures. 
In other words, as already noted, political or 'historical' factors were 
more significant than economic or social ones, certainly than religious 

Like the west, other societies too have maintained a certain coherence 
over time; this is Braudel's notion of 'culture' which seems to suggest 
that life has always been as it is, unchanging; anyhow in the east. China 

103 Although China was identified by the Communist Party in 1928 as having had a semi- 
feudal, semi-colonial regime (Brook 1999: 134ff.), feudalism in China was associated 
with the idea of 'parcelized sovereignty', seeing it as a universal pre-capitalist phase. 

104 Braudel 1984: 592. 105 Braudel 1984: 585. 106 Braudel 1984: 600. 

The theft of capitalism' 201 

always had its mandarins, India its caste system, Turkey its sipahis. 101 He 
claims that 'The social order steadily and monotonously reproduced itself 
in accordance with basic economic necessities'; culture (or civilization) 
continues over time, especially because of religion, and somehow 'fills 
gaps in the social fabric' . ' 08 Europe however was 'more mobile', and more 
open to change, a feature that again seems to be attributed to 'culture' or 
perhaps to its 'mentality'. It is true in fact that in many spheres change 
certainly seems to be more rapid since the Industrial Revolution but 
to push this capacity right back in cultural time seems an ahistorical 
approach that skips over the evidence. 

Braudel recognizes the earlier parallelism in the developments of trade 
and finance elsewhere, for example with Islam. 'Throughout Islam there 
were craft guilds and the changes they underwent (the use of the master- 
craftsmen, home-working, and craft-making outside the towns) resemble 
what was to happen in Europe too closely to have been the result of 
anything but economic logic.' 109 There was parallel social evolution at 
work as well as interaction. Although China attempted to forbid foreign 
trade for a limited period, partly for strategic reasons, there continued to 
be an enormous internal market. 'The merchants and bankers of Shansi 
province went all over China.' Others travelled abroad. 'Another Chinese 
network originated in the south coast (especially in Fukien) and reached 
to Japan and the East Indies, building up a Chinese overseas economy 
which for many years resembled a form of colonial expansion.' 110 India's 
foreign trade too extended widely well before the advent of European 
ships; her bankers were present 'in large numbers' in Isfahan, Istanbul, 
Astrakhan, and even in Moscow. The opening-up of the Atlantic trade 
made an important difference but trade was already very active in Eurasia. 
Nor was it basically different in the east than in the west. 

Those traders developed once again the strong contacts with Europe 
that had existed before the collapse of the Roman Empire, and which 
had institutionalized an 'early capitalism'. Europe opened up again after 
the collapse of that Empire. From the end of the first millennium ce, 
Venice built up a merchant fleet and navy for its trade with the eastern 
Mediterranean, with Asia, mainly the Muslim Near East, to which trade 
came from China. Venice developed both trade and a navy. The Arsenal 
where the ships were built was founded around 1 100 but only grew with 
the construction of the New Arsenal around 1300. 'Arsenal' was an Ara- 
bic word and similar construction sites existed throughout the Mediter- 
ranean, including Turkey, in obvious competition with one another. For 

107 Braudel 1984b: 61. 108 Braudel 1984b: 86. 109 Braudel 1982: 559. 
110 Braudel 1984: 153. 

202 Three scholarly perspectives 

the next 300 years Venice produced the best fighting ships available, espe- 
cially the light galleys {galea sottile) supplemented by a smaller number of 
larger ones {galea grossa) . The Arsenal acquired the monopoly of building 
for the state. The number of ships built there was large, providing a fleet 
that was larger than any in the western world, with 1 00 light galleys plus 
1 2 great ones, which is why the Venetian contribution was so important 
at the battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571. This Arsenal, and 
similar enterprises in the east as well, demonstrate that features we now 
tend to view as a product of the Industrial Revolution were in fact present 
much earlier, and not only in Europe. 

To build those ships, the Arsenal was organized for continuous pro- 
duction with 'one of the biggest concentrations of workers in the world 
at that time', 111 some 2,000 to 3000 employees. Starting from about 
1360, the workforce was distinguished hierarchically, with a professional 
elite being paid a salary, the rest on a weekly basis, largely employed 
through master-craftsmen in a manner that gave them considerable 'free- 
dom'. It has been described by Zan as a 'hybrid organization', 'modern 
and pre-modern at the same time, whereby working relations are already 
internalized [to the organization] according to a capitalist mode of pro- 
duction, though labour itself is not totally under control'. 112 That situ- 
ation clearly presented problems of coordination and management. All 
large-scale operations employing a numerous work force do so, requiring 
a hierarchy, specialization, forecasting, a reckoning of costs, and var- 
ied organizational skills. In early modern Europe, these features were 
especially associated with arsenals which were primary among factory- 
type enterprises. 113 The point to be made is not that we see the emer- 
gence of 'management' in Venice before the appearance of what has been 
called the 'visible hand' in the twentieth-century United States 1 14 but that 
with the complexity of industrial activity, effectively beginning with the 
Bronze Age, we see the gradual emergence of skills along with the growth 
of collective production. As far as Venice was concerned, it should be 
emphasized that any establishment building numbers of ships, especially 
large vessels, whether in Turkey, in India or in China, would have to 
face problems of this kind. No-one 'invented' management, though they 
elaborated the practice under increasingly complex processes of produc- 
tion. As we have seen in chapter 4, there was nothing particularly unique 
in Venice's Arsenal, which was a function more of the activity than the 

That was part of the history of Europe's development of 'true capital- 
ism', often seen as going back to earlier advantage, to earlier inequalities. 

111 Zan 2004: 149. u2 Zan 2004: 149. n3 Concina 1987. u4 Chandler 1977. 

The theft of 'capitalism' 203 

Writing of his proposal to consider society by 'sets' or 'sectors', Braudel 
claims that the overall social situation is easier to observe in Europe, 
'which was so much ahead of the rest of the world' and where 'a rapidly 
developing economy often seems to have dominated other sectors after 
about the eleventh or twelfth century, and even more markedly after the 
sixteenth'. 115 The eleventh century refers to the developments in trade, 
in towns, in 'feudalism', following Fan mille, the new millennium. 116 The 
sixteenth century refers above all to the activities of 'the great merchant 
companies' of Holland and England who created monopolistic positions 
in some northern parts of the globe. And it was in the sixteenth cen- 
tury that 'a new class' evolved, a 'bourgeoisie emerging from the back- 
ground of trade' 117 which was climbing 'by its own efforts to the highest 
place in contemporary society'. They only survived as capitalists for a few 
generations; later they became grands bourgeois attached to the humanist 
culture of the Renaissance, foreshadowing the Enlightenment 118 which 
directed its 'revolutionary ideology' against 'the privileges of a leisured 
aristocratic class'. 119 Hence, it was 'within a complex of conflicting forces 
that economic expansion took place between the Middle Ages and the 
eighteenth century, bringing with it capitalism'. 120 Outside Europe the 
situation was different, since the state 'had been imposing its intolerable 
pressures for centuries'. 121 It was only in Europe in the fifteenth cen- 
tury that the government embarked upon 'a determined expansion' and 
created the first 'modern state'. Elsewhere the old rules obtained. 'Only 
Europe was innovating in politics (and not in politics alone).' 122 That is a 
strong eurocentric claim and one that diminishes political developments 
in other areas; it relies more on the voices of commentators (political 
philosophers) rather than on the empirical analysis of actual political sys- 

Braudel's argument admits of lesser capitalist developments elsewhere 
but there was always something special about Europe that produced 'true 
capitalism'. He writes of the economy and indeed of social developments 
generally as having 'a tendency to be synchronized throughout Europe', 
which did not happen elsewhere (though the size of the unit has to be 
taken into account). 123 But given the very close (reciprocal) relations that 
Europe had with the Near East, how could these other developments 
not be 'synchronized'? 121 And if this was the case with the Near East, 

115 Braudel 1984: 460. 116 Duby 1996. 117 Braudel 1984: 478. 

118 Braudel 1984: 487. 119 Braudel 1984: 504. 12 ° Braudel 1984: 461. 

121 Braudel 1982: 514. 122 Braudel 1982: 515. 123 Braudel 1984: 477. 

124 p eter B ur ke points out that Braudel argues that population rose and fell in early modern 

Europe at more or less the same time as in China, Japan, and India, which suggests the 

possibility of a measure of synchronicity in other fields. 

204 Three scholarly perspectives 

why not the rest of Asia? His view, which sometimes disregarded the 
reciprocity of trade, was that basically they lacked a certain historical and 
political factor. In other words, the more distant past, perhaps the culture, 
made capitalism inevitable in Europe but impossible elsewhere. This is 
related to a general problem in his theoretical approach. Firstly he makes 
a firm distinction between the layers of the economy. Such a division does 
have a certain heuristic value, but it results in too severe a separation of 
full capitalism and the market. The market economy almost appears as 
'natural'; 123 only in certain places was it accompanied 'by an overarching 
economy which seizes these humble activities from above, redirects them 
and holds them in its mercy'. Full capitalism then becomes European. 

Secondly Braudel believes in cycles (repetitive movements) not simply 
as analytic instruments but as causal factors, which emphasize his com- 
mitment to continuity, to repetition, to 'culture'. He writes of one histo- 
rian denying the role of a Kondratieff cycle, that is, repetitive movements 
in history of standard duration. Always questioning his own premises, he 
asks: 'Is it possible to believe that human history obeys all-commanding 
rhythms which ordinary logic cannot explain? I am inclined to answer 
yes.' 126 I myself would place more reliance on logic, and say quite def- 
initely no. In any case it is not clear how a cyclical view fits with the 
developmental one he elsewhere follows. 

His general argument about development is that 'capitalism has been 
potentially visible since the dawn of history'. 127 What weight should one 
give to 'potentially' here? In Europe he sees the rise of towns as perhaps 
the first indicator of potentiality turning to possibility. Already in the 
thirteenth century, commercial and industrial developments were taking 
place, including banking. Contrary to many scholars, as we have seen, 
Braudel is prepared to see capitalism in earlier and other economies. 
However, very few areas favoured the reproduction of capital necessary 
for 'true' capitalism. He is led to perceive full capitalism not as rational 
but almost as 'the irrational behaviour of speculation'. 128 For western 
capitalism was different: in the long run it created 'a new art of living, 
new ways of thinking', 129 almost a new civilization, not at the time of 
the Protestant Reformation but already with the Catholic Renaissance. 
Thirteenth-century Florence was 'a capitalist city', 130 so too were other 
towns such as Venice, but because of exchange rather than production. In 
eighteenth-century Europe it was trade rather than industry or agriculture 
that made money on a large scale, but of course one had to have something 
to trade; that was where the profits were. 131 

125 Braudel 1984: 38. 126 Braudel 1984: 618. 127 Braudel 1984: 620. 
128 Braudel 1984: 577. 129 Braudel 1984: 578. 13 ° Braudel 1984: 578. 
131 Braudel 1984: 428. 

The theft of 'capitalism' 205 

In BraudePs eyes, to participate at this most inclusive level of (Euro- 
pean) capitalism, in what was not always a straightforwardly competi- 
tive activity (but sometimes monopolistic), took a capitalist working with 
large sums of money. 132 Even the development of monopolies was not, as 
Lenin claimed, characteristic of the last 'imperialistic' phase of capitalism, 
appearing in much earlier ones. But in the past monopoly 'only occupied 
a narrow platform of economic life'. 133 However one of capitalism's char- 
acteristics was that it could move the action from one sector to another 
at a moment's notice. 134 Here Braudel is clearly thinking of finance cap- 
italism, including dealings in stocks and shares, which he sees as the top 
of the economic tree. On the other hand much trade involved a mea- 
sure of flexibility in cargoes and destinations. Certainly as industry and 
exchange show, new finance, and more complex finance, was required. 
But in this development the production and distribution of goods became 
increasingly important. 

The timing of capitalism 

When did this type of real 'capitalism' put in an appearance in Europe? 
Some historians would select as the beginning of capitalism in Europe the 
opening up of the western Mediterranean by Venice's trade with the east 
which had gathered momentum by the new millennium. Blocking this 
advance was the fact that all Europe suffered a great setback with the Black 
Death of the fourteenth century. England only began fully to recover from 
that plague towards the end of the fifteenth. At that time, in response to 
the demographic revival, yeoman farmers, gentleman sheep breeders, 
urban cloth manufacturers, and merchant adventurers produced what 
has been described as a social and economic revolution. The export of 
raw wool gave way to that of woven cloth manufactured at home, which 
was mainly accomplished by cottage producers, then shipped to Europe. 
By the time Henry VII came to the throne, the Merchant Adventurers, 
an association of London cloth exporters, was controlling the London- 
Antwerp market (formerly Bruges), and replaced in economic impor- 
tance the Staplers who dealt in raw wool. By 1496 they had become a 
chartered organization exercising a legal monopoly. As a consequence 
of this growth, flocks increased, enclosures proliferated, Italian bankers 
flocked to London. Landowners assumed a different role in economic 
life. The change was stimulated by the growth in trade first in the raw 
material for textiles, then in the textiles themselves, rather than in the 
agricultural production of food. That trade in textiles to Flanders, Hol- 
land, and thence to Italy was of fundamental importance to the recovery 

132 Braudel 1984: 432. 133 Braudel 1984: 239. 134 Braudel 1984: 433. 

206 Three scholarly perspectives 

of Europe since it produced goods needed by the east and at the same 
time encouraged the import of eastern textiles to Europe, especially silk, 
then cotton. The continent later adapted their manufacture to local con- 
ditions in an effort at import substitution and initiated what has been 
called the Industrial Revolution. 

Many would place the economic advance of Europe as a later event. 
For Braudel the European economy was the matrix of true capitalism, 
but the timing is different, developing quite early. In the first cities of 
Europe, every feature of latter-day capitalism seems to have developed in 
embryo. 135 These city-states were 'modern forms', 'ahead of their time'. 
The beginning of the first European world-economy appeared around 
1 200, with the reoccupation of the Mediterranean by the ships and mer- 
chants of Italy, primarily Venice. 136 Braudel argues that the Crusades 
were a great stimulus to achieving this outcome. Only after the Crusades 
of the fourteenth century did Italy really develop as a commercial cen- 
tre. Those campaigns led to walled towns separating country from city, 
the creation of which was stimulated by contacts with Islam and Byzan- 
tium. For example, the rise of Amalfi in south-western Italy has been 
explained by the town's privileged contact with the Islamic world, where 
other 'city-states' were to be found. 

The development of finances was obviously critical to 'finance capital- 
ism'. It has been said that one of the few features of the economy that 
did not go back to classical times was the idea of the national debt. The 
debt lay at the centre of a 'financial revolution' in Britain which served 
to attract capital, especially for overseas commerce. For capitalism was 
always found in that section of the economy that sought to participate in 
the more active aspects of international trade: 137 'Capital laughed at fron- 
tiers.' 138 As we have seen, Braudel's concentration on credit, exchange, 
and finance as the major characteristics of advanced capitalism leads him 
to play down production, even the Industrial Revolution, the machine age 
itself, though he does devote the penultimate chapter of his massive work 
to that process. He suggests somewhat tentatively that industrial produc- 
tion in Europe multiplied at least five times between 1600 and 1800, that 
is, largely before the so-called Revolution itself, a proposition we return 
to in Wrigley's discussion. 139 Much of this large-scale production was 
launched with the aid of subsidies and monopolies, a situation that only 
changed with the machine age, and hence was tied like the national debt 
to the activities of the nation state (though it is based paradoxically on 

135 Braudel 1984: 91. 

136 Braudel 1984: 93 (the Commercial Revolution, Lopez called it in 1971). 

137 Braudel 1984: 554. 138 Braudel 1984: 528. 139 Braudel 1984: 181. 

The theft of 'capitalism' 207 

international commerce). But increased production was of course impor- 
tant in sponsoring a consumer culture. That is partly recognized when the 
fact that goods could be made more cheaply in the north is described as 
'the victory of the proletarian', leading to the powerful rise of Amsterdam 
and other Protestant countries. 140 

It needs to be added that for Braudel the Industrial Revolution was 
more than a question only of the increase in savings rates, of investment 
in technology, but rather 'an overall and indivisible process'. 141 That 
complexity he claims makes it difficult to transfer capitalism to other 
parts of the world. In order to take part in this process the contemporary 
Third World as a whole will have 'to break down the existing interna- 
tional order', whereas earlier it was possible only 'at the heart' of 'an 
open world-economy', namely in Europe. The mechanization associated 
with that Revolution he sees as starting in Europe possibly in the thir- 
teenth and fourteenth centuries where its real forerunner may have been 
the German mining industry for which the dependence on machines was 
so well illustrated in the work of Agricola. Italy followed. It had a demo- 
graphic revolution, developed the first 'territorial states' (in the early fif- 
teenth century) and in the Milan area had an agricultural revolution 
developing irrigation and 'high farming' before that occurred in England 
and Holland. Indeed Milan might well have gone further ahead along 
the road to capitalism had it had an external market. However England, 
which lagged behind the French in the sixteenth century, also had access 
to coal as an energy source which permitted larger factories to supply a 
larger market (overseas more often than internal) and to innovate in pro- 
duction. However innovation was in no sense confined to the west, which 
adopted many features from the east, where mechanization and indus- 
trialization had already begun and where, in many areas, agriculture was 
very advanced. 

In sum, Braudel shows himself to be in two minds about the timing 
of capitalism, and indeed whether we are referring to production itself 
or to the finance involved in making and exchanging goods. About the 
timing, capitalism is widespread but 'true capitalism' is specific to the 
later west, even if its roots go much further back in its history. His uncer- 
tainty reflects divergences among western historians more generally. Marx 
originally claimed the thirteenth century in Europe as the beginning of 
capitalism, whereas Wallerstein follows his later line in opting for the 
sixteenth. Nef saw the Industrial Revolution in England beginning in 
the sixteenth century when industrialization was 'endemic' throughout 
the continent. Some, such as Charles Wilson and Eric Hobsbawm, see 

140 Braudel 1982: 570. 141 Braudel 1984: 539. 

208 Three scholarly perspectives 

it beginning by the restoration of the British monarchy of 1660. In the 
more usual view the eighteenth century is the locus of the capitalism of the 
Industrial Revolution, the critical factor being the coming of the machine 
age, the development of technology which Marx saw as so important, 
especially for the cotton industry with its mass production and extensive 

The timing of the onset of European advantage is thus subject to major 
disagreements among economic historians. So too is its location, both 
being linked. In a recent account, the economic geographer, Wrigley, 142 
argues that by the beginning of the nineteenth century England was signif- 
icantly different from its continental neighbours, wealthier, growing more 
rapidly, more heavily urbanized and far less dependent upon agriculture. 
Using national income accounting techniques, and referring to Rostow's 
notion of a take-off between 1783 and 1802, growth before 1830, the rail- 
way age, seems to have been slow, despite the aggregate performance of 
the economy as a whole. Wrigley therefore concludes that the divergence 
of England occurred much earlier than is often supposed and that it must 
have been well clear of its rivals by 1700. This advantage he argues was 
not due to the Industrial Revolution, since only slow surges of growth 
occurred from 1760, but was based upon a larger advance in the preced- 
ing century or two. This growth derived from the success in expanding 
the possibilities inherent in what he calls an advanced 'organic economy', 
in which material artefacts were made from animal or vegetable materi- 
als 143 (which also provided the energy) to an inorganic one (that is, based 
on coal and fossil fuels). 

That anglo-centred view does not go undisputed. According to de Vries 
and van der Woude, it was the Dutch that developed the first 'modern' 
(capitalist) economy during the Golden Age between the mid-sixteenth 
century and c.1680. Not only commerce and industry but agriculture 
too was involved in dynamic expansion. Rapid urban growth took place 
as well as a transformation of the occupational structure that anticipated 
England by some 150 years, 144 a process that was assisted by an excellent 
transport infrastructure (mainly by water) and by cheap energy (mainly 
from peat, 'inorganic'). At the end of the seventeenth century, a period of 
stagnation set in, since a modern economy, they argue, is not necessarily 
self-sustaining. Wrigley however assumes that in England growth was 
exponential and that a dramatic divergence occurred when an organic- 
based economy shifted to an inorganic one. 

In these nationalistic accounts first the Dutch, then the British, devel- 
oped advanced 'organic' economies which were hardly self-sustaining as 

142 Wrigley 2004. 143 Wrigley 2004: 23-4. 144 Wrigley 2004: 62. 

The theft of 'capitalism' 209 

far as growth was concerned, then shifted to exploit the inorganic. How- 
ever such economies were not the first in Europe to make such a move 
towards mechanization as we see from the history of the silk production 
in Lucca, nor yet of factory organization in the manufacture of ships and 
guns in the arsenals of the Mediterranean; in other words, Italy had pre- 
ceded them in this and other ways. Moreover, like China and the Near 
East, it had employed water power for energy that was not subject to 
the same organic restraints as the burning of wood. The use of water in 
paper-making, for example, gave the rainier Europe an advantage over 
the Near East that led to more efficient production of paper which then 
began to be exported to rather than imported from that area. However, 
China also made use of water power and of fossil fuels (in blast furnaces) 
long before England and Europe; and features of the inorganic economy 
were already in place elsewhere. Or to put it in other terms, capitalism 
was already well entrenched, as was mechanization and even industrial- 
ization. As for the intensification of agriculture in 'pre-industrial' Holland 
and England, parallel events had occurred in Italy and, as Pomeranz dis- 
cusses, 145 in other specific areas outside Europe, reminding us that we 
should beware of the use of aggregate growth based upon national polit- 
ical units (as Wrigley warns us for Britain or England) but rather refer to 
specific regions and, one should add, to specific times, since these varied 
considerably. The prosperous mezzogiorno of the Islamic and Norman 
periods became the backward Italy of the mafia in later ones. When the 
countries of the North Atlantic seaboard burst upon the scene, they did 
so on the basis of the export of 'organic' textiles, of wool and then woollen 
cloth, from Britain to Flanders or to the north of France and then to Italy. 
They developed a coastal trade around the North Sea and eventually into 
the Mediterranean, which is where the main action was taking place at 
the time. 

Such oscillation between regions is not only a function of the law of 
diminishing returns as formulated by Riccardo. Agricultural economies 
do not exist in isolation, not at least since the Bronze Age when devel- 
opments in that sphere were stimulated by the growth of towns and of 
commerce which in turn encouraged agriculture. Oscillations occurred 
for a variety of factors, but while growth was not sustainable in the shorter 
term, in the longer it was. Oscillation also took place between individual 
industrial economies, where the dominance of English growth gave way 
to Germany and then to the US, each exploiting particular advantages. 
Now the same is happening with China. Competition and advantage are 
the names of the game. 

145 Pomeranz 2000. 

210 Three scholarly perspectives 

What is common among most western historians, including those like 
Weber and Braudel who study the problem comparatively, is that even 
after considering data from different societies, all end up where they 
started, seeing Europe as the 'real' home of capitalism, well before the 
Great Divergence. That is understandable if the situation under consid- 
eration is Europe in the nineteenth century, which undoubtedly had a 
comparative advantage. But to push that advantage back into the early 
modern and medieval periods is to discount the many achievements, in 
the economy, in technology, in learning, and in communication, which 
those other societies had undoubtedly achieved, including in the earlier 
stages of 'capitalism'. The result is to appropriate the whole nature and 
spirit of capitalism (or in Braudel's case 'true' capitalism) and to claim it 
uniquely for the west, or even for one component of the west, England 
or Holland. 

In the conclusion to chapter 4, I discussed the merits of the concept 
of the 'tributary states' as applying throughout Eurasia and of providing 
for a continuous development from the Urban Revolution of the Bronze 
Age. We need to look at the economy growing over that five thousand 
years. I referred to the development of urban civilizations, the increase 
in the production of goods and ideas and therefore of mercantile capi- 
talism. Of course, there were incremental developments in all of these 
fields, the rhythm of which was hastened by changes in communication, 
leading up to the electronic media. Of these developments, the increased 
industrialization characterizing late eighteenth-century Britain was of the 
utmost significance for the future. But industrialization, mechanization 
and mass-production developed, slowly at first, in other parts of Eurasia, 
in China with textiles, ceramics, and paper, in India with cotton, later 
taken up in Europe and the Near East, to which were added the produc- 
tion of weapons of destruction, mass-produced in factories organized on 
modern lines (involving private as well as state capital), in foundries and 
arsenals throughout the region. That is the kind of long-term develop- 
mental scheme we need to be considering for Eurasia. 

If we doubt the relevance of a specifically European sequencing of 
Antiquity, feudalism, capitalism, we arrive at the notion of a long-term, 
sometimes rapid, sometimes slow, development of urban cultures through 
the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, to the efflorescence of classical cul- 
tures and the Mediterranean, but also in China and elsewhere, a collapse 
in western Europe, slow but continuous increase in China, the gradual 
renewal of towns in the west and their constant communication with the 
east, with the consequential growth of mercantile activity and of urban 
cultures. Those mercantile cultures developed a diversification of their 
products, the mechanization of their methods of production, leading to 

The theft of 'capitalism' 211 

mass-production and mass exports and imports. But all that process can 
be described without adopting the nineteenth-century notion of the emer- 
gence of capitalism as a specific stage in the development of world society, 
and we can dispense with the supposed sequence of periods of produc- 
tion leading to it that are confined to Europe. Such an account avoids 
European periodization and its assumptions of long-term superiority. 

The discussion of Braudel therefore leads us to ask whether we really 
need the concept of capitalism, which always seems to push the analy- 
sis in a eurocentric direction. In his account he is in fact talking about 
widespread mercantile activity and its concomitants, which eventually 
came to dominate the society. That often involves re-investing profits in 
the means of transport (ships) or production (looms) but the process also 
occurs even in many agricultural societies. The phase of so-called finance 
capitalism is surely an extension of this activity. Can we not therefore dis- 
pense with this pejorative term drawn from nineteenth-century Britain 
and recognize the element of continuity in the market and in bourgeois 
activities from the Bronze Age until modern times? 

Part Three 

Three institutions and values 

8 The theft of institutions: towns, 
and universities 

There is a widespread belief in the west that European towns differ sub- 
stantially from eastern towns especially in the factors that create 'capital- 
ism', most notably expressed by Max Weber. This distinction is supposed 
to stem from the specific circumstances of European life after the end of 
Antiquity, more specifically from the political and economic conditions 
characteristic of feudalism (which saw the rise of the 'commune' in north- 
ern Italy) . Linked to this is the commonly held idea that higher education 
started with the founding of universities in western Europe beginning 
with Bologna in the eleventh century. 1 The same constellation that is 
seen to have given rise to European towns has, in this view, generated the 
momentum required for the qualitative leap that distinguishes European 
intellectual life after the first centuries of the Middle Ages. According to 
the medievalist, Jacques Le Goff, western Christian Europe at the turn 
of the twelfth and thirteenth century saw the virtually simultaneous birth 
of the town and the universities, though he is more interested in intellec- 
tuals as individuals rather than universities as institutions. He writes: 'the 
most conclusive aspect of our model of the medieval intellectual is his 
connection with the town'. 2 Both are seen are being particularly western 
and as developing modernity. Both suppositions are highly questionable 
and illustrate the concerted efforts of European scholars to maintain a 
highly eurocentric position even in the face of strong evidence that pleads 
for a different interpretation. 


Let us take towns first. In discussing the Middle Ages, many histori- 
ans have concentrated their analysis on the rural sector and on feudal 
relationships. As Hilton has remarked, that is especially true of Marxist 

1 See for example Haskins's study (1923: 7), where universities are seen as being part of 
'the renaissance of the twelfth century', stimulated by Arabic learning, though Salerno is 
traced to the middle of the eleventh century - the 'earliest university of medieval Europe'. 

2 Le Goff 1993: xiv. 


216 Three institutions and values 

writers. 3 Towns were largely relegated to the background, and regarded as 
relatively unimportant to feudal developments, at least in the early stages. 
They resurface in European history simultaneously with the first steps 
towards capitalism, mirroring the progression from agrarian to industrial 
societies. Other writers such as Anderson have drawn attention to the 
'urban enclaves' in the High Middle Ages, refusing to divorce them from 
the surrounding agrarian leaven. 

In the west the 'corporate urban communities undoubtedly represented 
a vanguard force in the total medieval economy'. 4 In the extreme west 
of the Roman Empire, the towns had suffered drastically from its dis- 
solution. Anderson minimizes the extent of urban collapse and draws 
attention to the fact that many municipios continued, in northern Italy 
for example. Later, in the new millennium, there was the growth of other 
centres, the majority of which 'were in origin promoted or protected 
by feudal lords'. 3 They soon gained 'a relative autonomy' throwing up 
a new patrician stratum and exploiting the conflict between noble and 
ecclesiastical power, as between Guelf and Gibelline in Italy. That meant 
a 'parcellized sovereignty', a split between aristocratic and clerical forces 
from which the bourgeoisie was held to profit, leaving them more scope 
to become the dominant party in the town's governance. In the east 
however the towns had continued, so too did the burghers; lords of the 
land were not needed as their promoters in the same way as in the west, 
though the role of religious centres and ecclesiastical towns was always 

The classical city did not vanish with the collapse of Rome and 'with 
an urban population, monumental buildings, games, and a highly liter- 
ate upper class, continued in at least the provincial capitals of western 
and southern Asia Minor, in Syria, Arabia, Palestine and Egypt right up 
to the Arab invasions, and in the areas under Arab rule beyond that'. 6 
By the seventh century, Italy and even Byzantium 'look very different 
from the contemporary (and by this time Arab) Near East, where there 
is much more evidence of continued economic complexity and prosper- 
ity'. 7 In the west, the situation had changed radically. In Britain skills 
such as the use of the potter's wheel, and building with bricks and mor- 
tar disappeared; schools vanished from what towns remained; gymnasia 
went out of use; the complexity of Roman economic life was no more. 
The church and country lords became much more central to life gen- 
erally, especially where 'cities ceased to have schools', literacy was low 
and restricted to 'a few leading families'; higher literary culture was 

3 Hilton 1976. 4 Anderson 1974a: 192. 5 Anderson 1974a: 190. 
6 Liebeschuetz 2000: 207. 7 Ward-Perkins 2000: 360. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 217 

left to private tutors and fitfully to the church. However, in the east 
a literary culture continued to flourish together with Christianity and 
other cults throughout the sixth century. By the seventh, even in the 
east, a shortage of books was experienced at Constantinople, and learn- 
ing was increasingly restricted to the literate clergy and to the capital 
itself. 8 

Looking at the reconstitution of towns in the later Middle Ages, Marx 
considered the European city as unique in its contribution to capitalism. 
It is part and parcel of his acceptance of the eurocentric genealogy of the 
development of capitalism through feudalism from Antiquity. According 
to Hobsbawm, Marx was not primarily interested in the internal dynam- 
ics of pre-capitalist systems 'except in so far as they explained the pre- 
conditions of capitalism'. 9 In Formen he elaborates his notion of why 
'labour' and 'capital' could not arise in pre-capitalist formations other 
than feudalism. Why was it that only feudalism is thought to allow factors 
of production to emerge without interference? The answer must surely lie 
in the definitions of labour and capital adopted, definitions that necessar- 
ily excluded them from other types of society. In other words the answer 
to the enquiry was predetermined by the nature of the question. Many 
European scholars, pre-occupied with the achievements of their societies 
in the nineteenth century, set themselves similar teleological questions 
which precluded the analysis of other types of society in their own right, 
or even in an 'objective' comparative perspective. In Marx's case 'there 
is the implication that European feudalism is unique, for no other form 
has produced the medieval city, which is crucial to the Marxian theory of 
the evolution of capitalism'. 10 So the nature of earlier cities is judged on 
the basis of who came out top in the nineteenth-century economy. How- 
ever, any general or genuine uniqueness the 'European city' may have 
had (and this remains a substantive question) is not necessarily linked 
to the growth of capitalism. Indeed Braudel sees one form of (mercan- 
tile) capitalism as characterizing all cities everywhere; for him it is only 
the financial form that is unique to the west (again a conclusion I have 
questioned in chapter 7). 

Since Antiquity the main towns of the northern shores of the Mediter- 
ranean had been supplied by sea with wheat coming from Sicily, Egypt, 
north Africa, and the Black Sea. Trade across the Mediterranean in other 
commodities such as oil and ceramics was also important. Later, how- 
ever, there arose a difference between the towns of east and west. The 
medieval towns of Europe (apart from Istanbul) were of much reduced 
dimensions and activity, and we have to wait until the nineteenth century 

8 Liebeschuetz 2000: 210-11. 9 Hobsbawm 1964: 43. 10 Hobsbawm 1964: 43. 

218 Three institutions and values 

for London or Paris to match the size of imperial Rome." Because of 
this decrease in size and activity the supply problems no longer involved 
the same level of exchange. 

The life of towns only began to revive when trade began again in the 
Mediterranean, and commerce with the east returned. Venice played an 
important part but was not alone among Italian towns. A fundamental 
role in opening trade was played by the towns around Amalfi, south- 
west of the southern city of Naples. Amalfi was not the only port to be 
involved in trade with the South and hence with the 'Saracens', who were 
'almost perennially present in the Tyrhennia arc throughout the ninth 
century'. 12 Skinner suggests that the founder of Gaeta, Dolcibili, was a 
merchant, who had made his fortune trading with the Muslims; at one 
point he 'unleashed a group of Arabs near Salerno to counter a move of 
the Pope'. 13 

The Near East generally did not only contribute to the quickening of 
trade in western Europe. Their influences can be discerned in the organi- 
zation and layout of towns as well as in architectural developments in the 
period preceding the Renaissance, both directly and as a consequence 
of commercial interaction between east and west, and the affluence this 
brought to western towns. The territory of the Amalfi area was harsh; 
towns were built on river valleys running down to the sea. But the rocky 
promontories were easy to defend, which was important when the Arab 
raids came thick and furious. It was perhaps these Arab raids that led 
to the indigenes of Amalfi and neighbouring Gaeta both breaking away 
from the rule of the Duchy of Naples. That relationship affected both 
architecture and art in special ways: 

The composite houses in the hill towns of Amain were places of spatial differ- 
entiation and decorative elaboration, characteristics that set them apart from 
contemporary buildings in Italy and from simpler and more austere dwellings 
of the early Middle Ages. The complex characters of the houses are inseparable 
from the act of mercatantia because the financial resources of the community were 
channelled into creating these lavish environments. As a viable site of expendi- 
ture, housing not only surpassed the basic requirements of shelter but entered 
the realm of artistic expression and ostentation. 

While the existence and splendour of such buildings depended on the profits of 
mercatantia, their specific forms also represented the commercial experiences of 
the Amalfitans. With their composite layouts and intricate webs of ornaments, the 
Amalfi houses coincide with North African architectural and ornamental lexicons 
that appeared in prominent secular and religious settings alike. Many related 
North African works of art were located in coastal cities such Mahdiyya and 
Tunis, the commercial centres familiar to generations of Amalfitan merchants. 

11 Geraci and Marin 2003: 577-8. 12 Skinner 1995: 32. 13 Skinner 1995: 31. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 219 

From the eleventh century through the thirteenth, these towns were precisely 
where regnicoli [local inhabitants] sold items such as lumber, grain, and textiles 
in exchange for gold, leather, and ceramics. 

Facilitating the reception of North African idioms was the presence of Muslims 
in the Regno itself and a long-standing though fragmented tradition of Islamic 
art production there. Some of the ornament used in North Africa would not 
have seemed unusual to elite Amalfitans because it was closely related to small- 
scale works made in the kingdom. As with baths and bathing, it is likely that the 
sophisticated housing paradigm that emphasized courtyards, differentiation of 
space, and decorative display was part of a broader culture of affluence in this part 
of the Mediterranean basin, one that transcended differences in faith. In this way 
the Amalfitans resemble well-to-do Constantinopolitans of the twelfth century, 
whose awareness and appreciation of Islamic painting led them to emulate such 
works in the capital. 14 

Architectural options of Islamic inspiration included the direct inte- 
gration of objects produced outside of Europe. One of the main imports 
from North Africa and the Near East was glazed ceramics, 'one of the 
first widely available commodities in southern Italy that embellished the 
domestic environment'. 13 But such objects were often used in fragments 
as tesserae or even whole as bacini to incorporate into church designs, espe- 
cially in Ravello where they provide evidence of the tastes and experiences 
of Amalfi merchants. 

Architecture in Ravello was of the south, a 'generalized Mediterranean 
culture'. But it also contains some elements from the north. Northern 
influences made themselves felt in the south when the Parisian basin 
conquered the south of France and in Italy, the Normans taking Sicily 
from the Arabs and giving way first to the Hohenzellern dynasty and 
then to the Anjou from central France. Gothic art had started to come 
in with its pointed archways as well as with heraldry. 16 Gothic arches 
were probably Arabic in origin; in any case there was a strong influ- 
ence coming from the east in urban architecture, especially in towns like 

However, despite the multiple influences of eastern towns on the west, 
and the similarities between the two urban structures, many scholars 
in the west have seen Asiatic towns as being structurally different from 
later (post-eleventh-century) European ones in ways that are supposed to 
have made it possible for the latter to develop capitalism and the former 
not. Islamic towns, albeit communicating and exchanging with European 
ones, are said to partake of this difference. So too Asian cities, according 
to the sociologist Max Weber. But their arguments always started from 
the standpoint of later European achievements which they needed to 

14 Caskey2004: 113-14. 15 Caskey 2004: 164. 16 Caskey 2004: 165. 

220 Three institutions and values 

explain. More recently that position has come under much criticism. For 
example, the Arabist, Hourani, writes: 'Scholars of the preceding gen- 
erations tended to adopt the idea (ultimately derived from the works of 
Max Weber) that towns in the full sense of the word only existed in Euro- 
pean countries because it was only in Europe that one found an "urban 
community" enjoying at least a partial autonomy under an administra- 
tion directed by elected authorities.' Eastern towns were therefore not 
'real' towns. 1 ' However modern scholars of Islam discern certain com- 
mon features between the two, 18 as one would expect with urbanization 
and mercantile activity, and would reverse this judgement. That is also 
true of India 19 and China. 20 

But the western notion of uniqueness was not to be given up without a 
struggle. The growing power of the new western towns is seen by Ander- 
son to be based on 'the parcellization of sovereignty peculiar to the feudal 
mode in Europe [hence unique] and that distinguished it fundamentally 
from the Oriental States with their larger towns'. The most mature west- 
ern form was the commune, expressive of the feudal unity of town and 
country because it was 'a confederation founded ... by an oath of recip- 
rocal loyalty between equals, the conjuratio' . 21 That view of the difference 
is one in which he follows Marx, Weber, Braudel, and many others. The 
freedom of the 'community of equals' was restricted to a narrow elite but 
'the germinal novelty of the institution derived from the self-government 
of autonomous towns', especially in Lombardy when the overlordship 
of episcopal rulers was overthrown. In England the towns were always 
dependent in some degree, for they were 'an absolutely central economic 
and cultural component of the feudal order'. 22 Anderson continues: 'it 
was on these dual foundations of impressive agrarian progress and urban 
vitality that the startling aesthetic and intellectual monuments of the High 
Middle Ages were raised, the great cathedrals (one critical achievement 
was Gothic architecture) and the first universities'. 23 However even in 
the Ancient Near East some towns had a relative autonomy (especially 
the city-states). In Europe, northern Italy was atypical. Other towns in 
Flanders and the Rhineland existed 'under charters of autonomy from 
feudal suzerains'. Also, Anderson's assessment overlooks the urban (and 
rural) achievements in both the aesthetic and the intellectual spheres else- 
where, for example under Islam in Granada or Cordoba, achievements 

17 Hourani 1990: my translation, quoted Denoix 2000: 329. 

18 Denoix 2000. 19 Gillion 1968. 20 Rowe 1984. 

21 In fact in Islam, for example in Syria in Crusading times, authority was constantly being 
divided between the caliph, the Imam or prince of the faithful, and the sultan and his 
various emirs, themselves capable of taking power. 

22 Anderson 1974a: 195. 23 Anderson 1974a: 195. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 22 1 

in architecture and in learning which were built on rather different 

The notion of 'parcellized sovereignty', so important for most analysts 
to the emergence of the town proper, and with it to the development of 
modernity, is intrinsic to Anderson's idea that feudalism was a necessary 
precursor of capitalism because: 

1 . It permitted 'the growth of autonomous towns in the interstitial spaces 
between disparate lordships'. 24 However, we have seen, towns in the 
east required no such permission; in fact they grew up throughout 
Eurasia following the Urban Revolution of the Bronze Age; and were 
intrinsic to the political economy. Some were more autonomous than 
others. So too with the autonomy of the church which he describes as 
'separate and universal'. But all written religions in fact maintained a 
partial independence of the polity as a result of their organization and 
their property-holding. 

2. The estates system led to medieval parliaments. However, moots and 
consultative assemblies were hardly restricted to Europe: some form 
of consultation, and often representation, was a widespread feature of 
governments in many parts of the world. So too was a division into 
estates, 'stande' in Weberian terminology. 

3. Divided sovereignty was a precondition for the freedom of townspeo- 
ple as well as of towns. But 'freedom' was not limited to the urban 
inhabitants of western Europe; all towns had a modicum of auton- 
omy, of anonymity and therefore of 'freedom'. 

The freedom of medieval towns is paradigmatic of eurocentric claims 
and deserves to be considered in greater depth. Anderson elsewhere 
quotes the German saying, Die Stadt macht frei, the town makes one 
free. But that remark applies to towns wherever they are found, for 
they inevitably provide their citizens with a measure of anonymity. Are 
towns in general also freer politically? Many of them gain a measure 
of freedom because of the nature of the activities that take place there, 
manufacturing, money-lending, law, medicine, administration, and com- 
merce. But as Southall observes 'the creation of the city involved a sharp 
rise in inequality', 23 which I would rather put down to the increased 
economic differentiation the use of the plough (as well as irrigation) 
brought about. In this sense the city always 'exploits' the countryside, 
takes its surplus in order to live and work. In any case, apart from north 
Italy, few European towns were free of all constraints of political or reli- 
gious overlordship. Elsewhere so-called 'free towns' were accorded cer- 
tain financial liberties by the suzerain. In general the towns of western 

24 Anderson 1974b: 418. 25 Southall 1998: 14. 

222 Three institutions and values 

Europe were more similar to the 'Asiatic city' than most scholars have 

In a wide-ranging book on the city (1998) Southall too, though accept- 
ing Marx's distinction between eastern and western towns, observes that 
' [d] espite the great diversity of cities in time and space, there is a demon- 
strable thread of continuity through their dialectical transformations from 
earliest beginnings till today, as they have played an ever greater part in 
human life'. 26 Despite the continuities he sees, he is compelled 'to carve 
up this mass of time and space into manageable, communicable portions, 
although every dissection violates reality'. 27 For this purpose he chooses 
'the modes of production adumbrated by Marx' which from my stand- 
point do not 'minimize distortion' as he suggests but aggravate it. He 
then accepts the division between Asiatic and European without really 
analysing it. 

In considering the city, Southall does not altogether limit it to post- 
Bronze Age society. He recognizes the urbanization of the Yoruba in 
West Africa, which has been called an 'agro-city', and he acknowledges 
the growth of small-scale cities at Catal Hiiyiik and Hacilar Anatolia, in 
Jericho (Palestine) as in Jarmo in the foothills of the Tigris, as well as 
some in the New World and South-east Asia. 28 Nevertheless in general 
terms the development of the city is associated with the Bronze Age. 
However he does try to set off Asian cities (to which he devotes a long 
chapter of some 125 pages) from European ones, partly on the basis of the 
division, made by Hsu, into the key civilizational factors of caste, class, 
and club. Looking at cities in this way neglects the obvious similarities 
(to which Southall in fact calls attention) in size of population, density, 
organization, specialisms, educational establishments, markets, hospitals, 
temples, commerce, crafts, banking, and guilds. On all these dimensions 
there is little to distinguish the towns in the east and the west before the 
nineteenth century. 


A claim that runs parallel with the alleged uniqueness of European towns 
refers to the nature of higher education, deemed to differ fundamentally 
from its predecessors and non-European contemporaries. Indeed Le Goff 
treats them in the same breath. 29 The notion of European academic sin- 
gularity is dependent on the idea that only here did towns develop along 
lines which alone can lead to capitalism, secularization, modernity. Here, 

26 Southall 1998: 4. 21 Southall 1998: 1. 28 Southall 1998: 18. 
29 Le Goff 1993. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 223 

and only here, in the growing autonomy of the urban world, in the eco- 
nomic and trade interests of an emergent, uniquely European social class 
which fuelled a concern with the natural world, can we find the premises 
for the emergence of universities and of science corresponding to the 
progress towards modernity. 

However, this position is hard to defend when we consider other coun- 
tries and other times; the evidence suggests that post-Antiquity Europe 
experienced a period of comparative intellectual bareness which was over- 
come partly due to external contributions. Higher education obviously 
existed in Greece in the form of the Academy and the Lyceum. It even 
continued in the former Roman empire: 

Schools can be traced at Alexandria, Antioch, Athens, Beirut, Constantinople, 
and Gaza; they were in effect the universities of the ancient world. They varied 
in character and importance: at Alexandria Aristotle was one of the main topics 
of study; the chief subject at Beirut was law. The need for such institutions was 
created by a vast increase in the Roman civil service in the fourth century. The 
government required administrators of liberal education and good prose style, 
as the emperor Constantius stated explicitly in 357 in an edict preserved in the 
Theodosian code. 30 (14.1.1.) 

With the exception of Athens, closed by Justinian in 529, all these were 
schools in Asia or Africa. The fact that in the Christian sphere such insti- 
tutions were closed down by Justinian shows what a dominant religion 
can do by way of limiting the spread of knowledge, although the nature 
of written religions meant that something had to be salvaged. Christian- 
ity certainly closed down earlier institutions of higher education. But the 
church inevitably required its own form of schooling, even though there 
were problems at the higher level, certainly with classical learning, obvi- 
ously pagan. 

By the latter part of the sixth century the decline of learning and culture was 
serious. The imperial university at Constantinople, refounded by Theodosius II 
c. 425, and a new clerical academy under the direction of the patriarchate, were 
the only major educational institutions in the main part of the empire; the school 
at Alexandria continued, but rather in isolation. The exhausted condition of the 
empire did nothing to encourage learning, and before any recovery could take 
place matters were made worse by the religious controversy over icon-worship. 
For some three centuries there is little record of education and the study of 
the classics. The iconoclasts were not finally defeated until 843, when a church 
council formally restored the traditional practices of image worship. Very few 
manuscripts of any kind remain from this period, and there is little external 
evidence about classical studies. 31 

30 Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 45. 31 Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 47-8. 

224 Three institutions and values 

Until the late third century, the east and west of the Roman empire 
had had a common culture, with almost identical mosaics being found 
a thousand miles apart. j2 Then the west dropped the use of Greek and 
for many reasons the gulf grew wider. There, large tracts of Roman ter- 
ritory passed into 'barbarian' control in the fifth century and Italy by its 
end became an Ostrogothic kingdom. At first schools continued to flour- 
ish but war threatened their existence and the Lombard invasion of 568 
struck the final blow, 'leaving monasteries as virtually the sole institutions 
providing basic literacy'. 33 Even the areas of North Africa invaded by the 
Arian Vandals in 429, who dispatched their fleet from Carthage to control 
Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearics, fared better. At first uninterested 
in education, they subsequently permitted Latin schools in Carthage 
which continued to teach until the capture of the town by the Arabs 
in 698. 

Egypt and much of the Near East had been Christian before the Arab 
conquest but eastern Christianity had not been so affected by the collapse 
of the western Roman empire and of its economy. Cities persisted and 
even the conquests of the Arabs did not disrupt life in the same way as 
the 'barbarian' invasions and internal weakness produced in the north. 
Indeed the Arabs were far from 'barbarians', being the heirs to the com- 
plex cultures of south-west Arabia and to the land of Sheba, as well as 
being converts to a written religion on a par with Judaism and Christianity, 
creeds with which many of the inhabitants were already acquainted. They 
were also the inheritors of a distinguished tradition of poetry through liv- 
ing on the fringes of the great civilizations of the Near East. 34 While 
everywhere there were periods of decline, by and large the south and east 
of the Mediterranean continued to be hosts to large urban centres with 
something of a parallel city and commercial life to classical Greece and 
Rome. The relative absence of artistic culture was probably due more to 
the interdictions of the dominant Abrahamistic religions than it was to 
any more general problem. 

So in the east some learning continued. What we also have to take into 
account is a rather neglected chapter in the history of transmission: the 
significance of the translation of Greek texts into Oriental languages. 'At 
some point during late Antiquity Greek texts began to be translated into 
Syriac, activity being centred in the towns of Nisibis and Edessa.' JD Not 
only biblical works but Aristotle and Theophrastus and poetry were trans- 
lated. Greek learning, which vanished almost without a trace in western 
Europe, survived in translation; Latin however continued sporadically 
until revived in the Renaissance. 36 Both Latin and Greek assisted in the 

32 Browning 2000: 872. 33 Browning 2000: 873. 34 Conrad 2000. 
35 Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 48. 36 Reynolds and Wilson 1974. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 225 

relative continuity of schools in the east after the Arab conquest, including 
Byzantium. In that town, 

The Bardas university was founded under favourable conditions, and was proba- 
bly the centre of a lively group of scholars concerned to recover and disseminate 
classical texts of many different kinds . . . Classical learning and education con- 
tinued in the eleventh century much as before . . . The philosophical school, 
which also gave instruction in grammar, rhetoric and literary subjects, was under 
the direction of Michael Psellus (1017-78), much the most versatile man of his 
generation, who distinguished himself as civil servant, senior adviser to several 
emperors, historian, and academic philosopher. His literary output attests his 
wide reading of the classics, but his intellectual interests were rather more in phi- 
losophy, and his eminence as a lecturer and teacher led to a renewed interest in 
Plato and to a lesser extent Aristotle. 3 ' 

It was in the east that classical tradition continued, both in terms of the 
works of Greek as well as Roman authors and with regard to the organi- 
zation of educational establishments. Whilst this did not happen seam- 
lessly, the interruptions in the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge 
known by the east were less far-reaching than the long-term near-erasure 
of education and learning in the west. The eleventh-century school where 
Psellus taught had been established long before: 

In 863 the assistant emperor Bardas revived the imperial university, which had 
disappeared in the turmoil of the preceding centuries, by founding a school 
in the capital under the direction of Leo, a philosopher and mathematician of 
distinction; other professors appointed at the same time were Theodore the geo- 
metrician, Theodegius the astronomer, and Cometas the literary scholar; the last 
of these may have specialized in rhetoric and Atticism, but he also prepared a 
recension of Homer. 3S 

However it remained active even after further political disturbances briefly 
interrupted its activity: 

The fortunes of the school were not entirely favourable. For reasons which seem to 
have been political rather than intellectual, the school's teachers fell into disfavour 
at the court, and Psellus himself had to retire to a monastery for a time; but he 
returned to important positions in due course, and it is likely that the school 
continued its work. 

From the time of its foundation the Badras university went through var- 
ious transformations, such as the specialization of fields of knowledge, 
which bring it into close proximity with modern ideas of higher learning: 

The major change of this epoch consisted of a reorganization of the imperial 
university; whether this was provoked by a decline in the institution in the form 
that Bardas had given it is unknown, but the new arrangement included the setting 

37 Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 54, 60. 38 Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 51. 

226 Three institutions and values 

up of a faculty of law and another of philosophy. The changes were made under 
the aegis of the emperor Constantine IX Monomachus in 1045. The law School 
does not concern us here, except to note that its foundation antedates by some 
years that of the famous faculty at Bologna, from which modern law faculties [in 
Europe] ultimately derive their origin. 39 

So eastern models may have been instrumental in the formation of 
academia as we know it. 

In western Europe, the discontinuity with classical learning, especially 
in Greek, was more pronounced in cathedral and monastic schools that 
revived some scholarly activity and which preceded the formation of what 
have been seen as the first universities in Bologna and elsewhere in the 
eleventh and twelfth centuries. That represented the re-establishment of 
higher education after the decline of western learning, following the dis- 
appearance of the Roman Empire in the west. With the new institutions, 
knowledge, including some scientific knowledge, began to accumulate 
and circulate more rapidly in the west than in the east. It was part of the 
revival after the decline, a presence after absence, that resulted in its own 
rebirth, epitomized in Botticelli's painting of the Birth of Venus. Before 
that the levels of knowledge had been in favour of the east as we see in 
the difference in library holdings which was staggering, largely because 
of the east's use of abundant paper rather than scarce animal skins or 
papyrus. 40 

Apart from Bologna, the medieval school at Salerno in southern Italy 
has been described by Kristeller as 'rightly famous as the earliest uni- 
versity of medieval Europe'. 41 It specialized in practical medicine, con- 
ducting dissections on animals. Its renown in medicine is first reliably 
recorded from 985 and there is no evidence that it existed before the 
middle of the tenth century. Significantly it continued to be in touch with 
the (Greek) east. One of the earliest authors associated with Salerno was 
Constantine 'the African', who became a monk at Monte Cassino and is 
thought of as 

the first translator and introducer of Arabic science in the Occident. The decla- 
mations of Renaissance humanists and of modern nationalists should not blind 
us against the historical fact that in the eleventh and twelfth centuries Arabian 
science was definitely superior to occidental science, including early Salernitan 
medicine, and that the translation of Arabic material meant a definite progress in 
available knowledge. The same is true for the translations of Greek works from 
the Arabic, for the simple reason that at that time the Arabs possessed many more 
works of Greek scientific literature than the Latins, and that in their commen- 
taries and independent works they had made definite contributions to the ancient 
Greek heritage. 42 

39 Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 54, 60. 40 See Djebar 2005: 22-3. 
41 Kristeller 1945: 138. 42 Kristeller 1945: 152. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 227 

All did not depend upon Arabic translation. A number of works attributed 
to Hippocrates, Galen, and others were available in Latin versions. Nev- 
ertheless Constantine's translations were more important becoming the 
basis for medical instruction 'for a long time'. 43 Arabic influence seems 
to begin with Constantine after which there was less scholasticism and 
less magic in the Salernitan literature of the later tenth century. 44 After 
that the curriculum became 'increasingly theoretical' 43 and was probably 
transferred to Paris. 

We have seen that the foundation of the Bolognan university and of 
other establishments of higher education in Europe was preceded by the 
Byzantium Badras university in the east. A similar discussion has arisen 
concerning how far the renewal of these institutions of higher learning 
was dependent upon outside stimulus from Islam, which inherited the 
schools and library of Alexandria and a large number of classical texts 
('Ancient science') or whether the renewal of learning was due to the 
internal development of humanism leading to the Renaissance. Let us 
first consider the situation in Islam which has recently been reviewed by 
Makdisi in The rise of colleges (1981). 

Muslim education 

It was in the east that the teaching of grammar and rhetoric continued. 
In the west, as I have argued, cities and their schools frequently went 
into decline. There were of course ambivalences about allowing clas- 
sical education to carry on both under Christianity and under Islam; 
Justinian took strong measures against 'pagan' culture. But the persis- 
tence of the Greek language in the east meant that the classics were more 
readily available, including to the Arabs when they arrived in the seventh 
century. Islam then created a worldwide religious space that stretched 
from southern Spain to northern China, to India and to South-east Asia, 
enabling information and inventions to travel easily throughout Eurasia. 
And it was through the Arabs that many classical and other texts were 
transmitted to the west, paving the way for the revival of learning in the 
west. Philosophy continued to flourish at Athens and at Alexandria after 
the collapse of the Roman Empire. In the latter town the Museum 'func- 
tioned as a University with the accent on research'. 46 

However, despite the various schools that remained active outside 
Europe even after the fall of Rome, the university was a form of social 
organization only produced in the Christian west according to Makdisi 
in the second half of the twelfth century. 47 The universities in Europe 

43 Kristeller 1945: 153. 44 Kristeller 1945: 155. 45 Kristeller 1945: 159. 
46 Childe 1964: 254. 47 Makdisi 1981: 224. 

228 Three institutions and values 

were a 'new product', 48 completely separate from the Greek academies 
of Athens or Alexandria and utterly foreign to Islamic experience. Higher 
education in the west, Makdisi argues, was not a product of the Greco- 
Roman world nor did it originate in the cathedral or monastic schools 
which preceded it; it differed from them in organization and in its stud- 
ies. 49 Moreover, according to him, it owes nothing to Islam, which did not 
have the abstract concept of a corporation; only physical persons could be 
endowed with legal personality. In addition, European universities drew 
their privileges from the Pope or the King, and scholars could reside away 
from home where they were not citizens (as in Islam). 

However, Makdisi's point-blank rejection of the impact Islamic prac- 
tices had upon Europe seems to neglect the fact that the rise of the uni- 
versities was accompanied by a revival of learning between 1100 and 
1 200 when an influx of knowledge arrived from what had been Muslim 
Sicily (until 1091) but mainly through Arab Spain. Moreover although 
the universities were said to be different from the madrasas which had 
been established throughout the Muslim world in the tenth and eleventh 
centuries, there were 'significant parallels between the system of educa- 
tion in Islam and that of the Christian West'. 30 In fact, some scholars 
have claimed that the medieval university owed much to the collegiate 
institution of Arab education. 31 If this has been disputed, the college 
'as an eleemosynary, charitable foundation was quite definitely native to 
Islam', 32 based on the Islamic waqf . Paris was the first western city where 
a college was established in 1 138 by a pilgrim returning from Jerusalem; 
it was founded, probably copying a madrasa, as a house of scholars, 
created by an individual without a royal charter. So too was Balliol in 
Oxford before it became a corporation. We have already noted that Mak- 
disi acknowledges the similarities between eastern and western colleges 
and the potential influence Islamic institutions may have had on their 
younger European counterparts. Nevertheless he is insistent that Euro- 
pean universities as corporations had no equivalent, and that it is through 
their unique nature that modern education and science developed. The 
nature of the distinction between university and college is brought out 
by the fact that one got a hybrid institution, the college-university (as 
at Yale). The university was a guild, originally a corporation of masters 
issuing warrants (degrees), the college was a charitable trust for poor 
students attending the university. 33 

Needham, too, considers universities as being one institution that 
made the difference in the west's overcoming its backwardness in science, 

48 Makdisi 1981: 225. 49 Rushdall 1936. 50 Makdisi 1981: 224. 

51 Ribera 1928: I, 227-359. 52 Makdisi 1981: 225. 53 Makdisi 1981: 233. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 229 

making way for the rise of 'modern science'. But Elvin has queried the 
view that such institutions were absent in China, asserting that schools of 
higher education did exist. 34 However, while universities were institutes 
of higher education, not all higher education took place in universities, 
though the difference is certainly shaded. Institutes of higher education 
and learning had existed in the Ancient Near East at temple 'research 
institutes', in the Classical world, in ancient Persia, and virtually wherever 
higher literacy was installed. Like towns, universities were only European 
from a very narrow point of view, strongly tinged by teleology. Their exis- 
tence as corporations was important in the long run but did not mean 
that institutions of higher learning could not function in other fashions, 
even though the European variety has been largely (but not universally) 
adopted in the modern world. 

The institution that has created most controversy is the Islamic 
madrasa, thought of as having taken over the libraries {dar al-'ilm) of 
early Islam in a Sunni effort to bring teaching back to legal orthodoxy. 
The madrasas consequently concentrated upon religious education and 
have therefore been compared unfavourably with European schools, but 
many aspects of their instruction and curricula had parallels there. In any 
case, although madrasas were largely concerned with religious education, 
'foreign sciences' (derived from Greek, Persian, Indian, and Chinese 
scholarship) were learned elsewhere, at libraries, courts, and at medi- 
cal institutions. Moreover, European universities certainly concentrated 
initially upon religion and in this respect the medical concentration at 
Salerno and the legal studies at Bologna were unusual. 

In Islam learning seems initially to have been financed privately by 
individual philanthropists. But institutions of learning themselves were 
brought into existence only after the formalization of charity by the law 
of waqf, of charitable foundations which were perpetual and established 
on a large scale in the tenth century. " The founding of masjid (mosques), 
where the learning of Islam began, started earlier, at least in the eighth 
century; the teaching of religion was endowed as a charitable foundation. 

In the tenth century, Badr of Baghdad developed a new type of insti- 
tution, a masjid-khan (inn) complex for out-of-town students. This was 
a prelude to the innovation of the madrasa by Nizam al-Mulk, an inno- 
vation which referred in the first place to its legal status rather than the 
curricula, though that was also affected; the Nizamiya itself was founded 
in Baghdad in 1067 ce. But neither Badr nor Nizam (both politicians) 
were in fact founders of these institutions, which developed gradually out 
of earlier schools. These were set up to encourage Sunni orthodoxy in the 

54 Elvin 2004. 55 Makdisi 1981: 28. 

230 Three institutions and values 

face of the Shi'ite spread, the invasions of the Crusaders and the general 
need to establish Islam and its law. 

Makdisi denies the status of university to the madrasa, since the latter 
did not form a corporation but only a charitable trust; Islam never fol- 
lowed the west in inventing the corporation which he regards as the great 
new form of perpetuity of the fourteenth century. The form of perpetu- 
ating he argues was more flexible in the west, leading to a more liberal 
interpretation of mortmain and, partly at least, a divergence between the 
two civilizations. Nevertheless the corresponding elements were many, 
which he lists as follows: 

(1) the waqf and the charitable trust, . . . especially the founder establishing his 
charitable institution by an act of his own will without the mediation of 
either the central government, or the church. 

(2) the madrasa and the college based on the law of the waqf or charitable 
trust, with their foundationers of graduates and undergraduates . . . and 
other corresponding elements of those institutions, inter alia, the founder's 
works, his freedom of choice and its limitation, the charitable object and the 
undeclared motives, the overseeing visitors and the beneficiaries; 

(3) the will of the sovereign in creating universities in western Islam, Christian 
Spain and southern Italy; 

(4) the development of two dialectics, one legal, the other speculative; 

(5) disputation at the core of legal and theological studies; 

(6) the unique status of the mudarris-professor of law in the madrasa and the 
professor of law in the universities of southern Europe, beginning with 

(7) the dars iftitahi and the inceptio; 

(8) the mu'id and the repetitor; 

(9) the shahid and the notary . . . 

(10) the khadim and the student-servitor; 

(11) the lectio and the two sets of three identical meanings of qara'a and legere; 

(12) the ta'liqa and the reportatio; 

(13) the summae . . . 

(14) the craze for verification . . . 

(15) the subordination of the literary arts to the three superior faculties, law, 
theology and medicine, brought on by a single-minded concentration on 
the dialectic and the disputation.' 56 

So although not a university (which he sees as a critical difference 
between east and west), he speaks of the east as having later 'borrowed 
the university system complete with Islamic elements'. 3/ Earlier the bor- 
rowing may have been in the other direction, anyhow in terms of teach- 
ing. Leaving aside the corporation and the governance by masters, higher 
education existed in both areas. All this discussion, however, works on 

56 Makdisi 1981: 287-8. " Makdisi 1981: 291. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 23 1 

the basis of a rather narrow conception of the university. Clearly Islam 
did have important institutions of higher learning for religious and legal 
education from an early period. Whether or not these stimulated western 
Europe is a moot question but there were clear parallels as there were 
in other advanced written cultures. But perhaps more importantly, in 
Islam these institutions were more or less exclusively devoted to religious 
studies, whereas in Europe, although religion initially dominated, other 
subjects were allowed to grow up within the university domain. Gradu- 
ally forms of secular knowledge became increasingly important. In Islam 
such forms of learning had to take place elsewhere. 

It is obvious that any literate culture must have schools in which to 
instruct the young in reading and writing, an institution in which they are 
taken from their 'natural' environment, looking after the cattle, guarding 
the younger children or fetching water in the case of the young girls, and 
instead confined by the limited space of a school room or place of worship 
where they sit in front of a master (or mistress) to learn not only to write 
but to remember what is contained in books (and sometimes what is 
contained in life) . Inevitably the schools are divided into those that teach 
primary knowledge, which with religious schools may be confined to 
learning the Catechism in Christianity 38 and in Islam may be the learning 
by heart of the Qu'ran, the uncreated word of God. At the same time, 
some pupils who show themselves as particularly talented may be wanted 
as future masters or as administrators (since literacy is now part of society) 
and will be encouraged to pursue further studies. Indeed some pupils may 
be drawn in this direction by their own curiosity. So that a desire and a 
need for some form of 'higher education' became widespread in literate 
cultures. This would take a variety of shapes, from personal instruction to 
community organization, so it is not surprising that something of this kind 
should have been reported from China, 39 Persia, 60 Islam as well as in the 
ancient world. 61 It had existed in the Ancient Near East. Temple 'research 
institutes' in Babylon continued to operate in the Hellenistic period. 62 
Childe also writes of the University of Gondeshapur, a largely Nestorian 
town of doctors in Sassanian Iran (530-580), captured by the Arabs, 
and of the later renewal of medical and other knowledge under the Khalifs 
of Baghdad (750-900). This institution was critical for the continuation 
of the study of medicine, always privileged, among the Arabs where this 
form of 'ancient science' was preserved and expanded in hospital and 
medical schools (maristan) that were not subject to the restrictions of 
forms of religious knowledge. 63 

58 Furet and Ozouf 1977. 5g Elvin 2004. 60 Childe 1964. 

61 Reynolds and Wilson 1974: 47-8. 62 Childe 1964: 255. 63 Makdisi 1981: 27. 

232 Three institutions and values 

For there was always a dichotomy in Islamic sciences between the 'reli- 
gious' and 'the foreign' or 'ancient'. This division has led to a misun- 
derstanding of the role of the madrasa which were Islam's institutions 
of higher learning. But these and their ancillary schools only looked 
after 'religious science'. How was it that 'foreign science', 'the sciences 
of the Ancestors', also flourished? Initially because there was an inter- 
play between the traditionalist forms of the madrasa and the rationalist 
forms represented by the dar al- 'Urn, which were eventually absorbed by 
the former. The main obstacle for the continued pursuit of non-religious 
studies in endowed schools was the Islamic waqf which excluded every- 
thing pagan from the curriculum. This however did not altogether exclude 
the 'foreign sciences' from intellectual life in Islamic societies. They were 
represented in the libraries 'where Greek works were preserved, and dis- 
putations took place on rationalist subjects' 64 but that study had to be pur- 
sued privately. Thus there was access to the 'ancient sciences', which was 
encouraged at certain times and places, 'in spite of the traditionalist oppo- 
sition, the periodic prohibitions, and autos-da-fe'. But the dichotomy in 
the sciences was matched by one in the institutions of learning; Islamic 
sciences were taught in the mosque whilst secular teaching and learning 
were largely confined to the private sphere. 

But let us look not at origins so much as parallels of which there 
are many between Islam and Christian learning. Indeed in many ways 
it may have been Islamic methods that preceded the founding of the 
first European University at Bologna, teaching law, as did the Badras 
school in Byzantium. The sic et non (central to the work of the scholas- 
tics like Aquinas), the questioner disputatae, the reportio, and the legal 
dialectic could have their earlier Islamic parallels. 65 As Montgomery 
Watt remarks of Islamic influence on Europe (contra von Grunebaum) : 
'Because Europe was reacting against Islam, it belittled the influence of 
the Saracens and exaggerated its dependence on its Greek and Roman 
heritage. So today, an important task for our Western Europeans, as 
we move into the era of the one world, is to correct this false empha- 
sis and to acknowledge fully our debt to the Arab and Islam world.' 66 
That debt occurred not only in the 'natural sciences' 67 but also in the 
organization of learning, that is, in the institutions and in the curricula, 
despite the predominance of religious teaching in the madrasa and the 
segregation of 'ancient' (that is, modern) and religious sciences, which 
made the formal teaching of secular knowledge so much more difficult in 

64 Makdisi 1981:78. 65 Makdisi 1981: 224. 66 Watt 1972: 84. 
67 For a brief account, see Djebar 2005. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 233 


In the west the history of education is bound up with the secularization 
of teaching, the loosening if not the freedom from religious control. This 
move depended in important ways on the advent of 'humanism' and 
the promotion of the 'pagan' authors of Greece and Rome, the revival 
of classical learning, which was partly due to Arab influence. In this 
section I want to turn to discuss 'humanism' in an educational context, 
its contribution to the growth of secularism, so important in the modern 
world, and to the part played by Islam in that movement in Europe, 
slightly ambiguously even before the recent 'fundamentalism'. 

Despite the growth in manufacture and in trade, to look upon the Mid- 
dle Ages as a progressive phase in a world-wide context (as distinct from 
post-collapse Europe) is to neglect the decline of literate culture as well 
as of urban society and its associated activities. The fall of Rome entailed 
a loss of literacy and literate activity which had been critical to the rapid 
development of post-Bronze Age societies. Secular learning developed 
again with the coming of humanism and eventually of the Renaissance 
which saw a rebirth. That was true not only of classical learning and other 
spheres such as architecture, but of systems of knowledge more generally. 
As Needham decisively demonstrates in respect of botany, 68 in the early 
Middle Ages there was a falling off in the general domain of scientific 
knowledge that accompanied a decline in urban society and its earlier 
schools, as well as the decrease of trade in the Mediterranean and else- 
where. The economic situation began to be reversed with the opening 
up of trade with the east after the first shock of the Arab conquest, but 
initially education revived firmly in ecclesiastical hands, excluding much 
of 'ancient science' as 'pagan'. That was to change with the development 
of communication, spatially with the east, chronologically with classical 
cultures, neither of them Christian. 

Knowledge, education, and the arts are not of course only linked to 
the economy. Of great importance in Christianity, as in Islam, but not 
in China which had avoided domination by a single creed or hegemonic 
'world religion' with important consequences for the question of human- 
ism, was the control that religion exercised in these spheres. For reli- 
gious authorities controlled education and dominated the arts, at least at 
the 'higher' levels. Following Judaic injunctions, Islam forbade figurative 
representation (including drama) over many centuries, down to today in 
some places. Christianity began with similar doubts but eventually per- 
mitted such activities, although until the Renaissance effectively only in 

68 Needham 1986a. 

234 Three institutions and values 

the service of religion. Earlier there was little secular drama, painting or 
even 'fiction'. 69 The Abrahamistic religion saw education as a branch of 
faith and reserved teaching largely for their own personnel. 

When did the world religions give up this stranglehold over learning 
and teaching (which also determined the spread of religious schools)? 
In China, there was no hegemonic religion, apart from the emperor and 
ancestor worship. In Europe the process of liberation had its tentative 
roots in the humanist activity of the twelfth to fifteenth centuries, much 
influenced by Islam. In Islam the struggle between tradition and other 
forms of teaching was a key to understanding. It was the former that 
overcame the latter, especially at Baghdad (the cultural centre of Islam) 
and during the great Inquisition, leading to the triumph of the law and 
the madrasa where it was taught. The teaching of 'ancient science', as we 
have seen, was relegated to the private world of the individual teacher. 
However, far from being a negligible aspect of a religiously dominated 
tradition, this undercurrent of secular, 'foreign' science and knowledge 
erupted periodically during Islam's own humanist phases, and gener- 
ally contributed to the preservation of scientific knowledge and habits 
of enquiry which were made available at various times to awakening 

Humanism did not deny religious belief, except in some extreme forms. 
But it did confine its relevance and therefore drew to some extent on 
traditions of scepticism and agnosticism which, I have argued, are found 
widely in human societies. 70 In Europe, such traditions were boosted not 
only by humanism but later by the Reformation, which to some extent 
freed Europe from existing dogmas - or anyhow showed the way. Until 
then, the teaching of reading and writing was very firmly in the hands 
of the Catholic Church at all levels. The Reformation necessarily broke 
that monopoly, although many teachers were still clergymen and religious 
aims were not abandoned, just confined to a more restricted 'spiritual' 
sphere. This development was an important aspect of modernization, 
because advanced scientific enquiry, and thought generally, implied the 
secularization of nature so that questions could range freely in all relevant 
spheres, especially in institutions of higher education. 

In Europe these institutions were called universities, which arose in the 
twelfth century. That development was part of a general revival of edu- 
cation in western Europe, where literacy had so badly declined. Western 
historians have often seen these universities as the virtual initiators of 
higher education, related to the independent, indigenous birth of human- 
ism, but they were still clearly tied to the church and to the training of 
'clerks', as was the case with the madrasas in Islam. However they were 

69 See Goody 1997. 70 Goody 1998: chapter 11. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 235 

of great significance in Europe and for its modernization, especially when 
they developed a more humanistic perspective and abandoned some of 
their religious roles. 

From the mid-fifteenth century, education itself was obviously enor- 
mously helped by the development of printing, the mechanization of 
writing. Printing assisted Protestantism in making the Bible more widely 
available. But it also helped the advance of secularism and of science by 
diffusing new ideas and new information. Block printing on wood arrived 
from China between 1250 and 1350. Paper-making came through Arab 
Spain in the twelfth century. About 1440 printing with moveable type, 
already used in the east, was developed in Mainz in Germany and the 
complex process of production, shifting from copyists to metal workers, 
spread rapidly, to Italy by 1467, to Hungary, Poland in the 1470s, and 
to Scandinavia by 1483. By 1500 the presses of Europe had already pro- 
duced some 6,000,000 books and the continent became a much more 
'learned' place, many early works being reprinted as well as much new 
information, assisting the project of the Italian Renaissance. 

It was on the basis of the rebirth of the study of classical literature at 
the time of the early Renaissance in northern Italy during the fourteenth 
century that Europe claimed the virtues of human civilization for itself 
under the rubric of 'humanism'. Classical studies had been taught by 
educators known as early as the late fifteenth century as umanisti, pro- 
fessors or students of classical literature. The word derived from studia 
humanitatis, the equivalent significantly of the Greek paideia, consisting 
of grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy, only part of 
which was relevant to religious education in Christian and Islamic circles. 
However humanitas also had a wider moral significance and meant 'the 
development of human virtue in all its forms, to its fullest extent', that is, 
not only such qualities as are associated with the modern word human- 
ity - 'understanding, benevolence, compassion, mercy - but also such 
more aggressive characteristics as fortitude, judgement, providence, elo- 
quence, and love of honour'. 71 In other words, the positive features of 
humanity itself became attributed to the European Renaissance. Thus 
the concept took on three main meanings: (1) the return to previous 
written knowledge, in the case of Europe, of the classical period, (2) the 
development of human potential and virtues to the highest degree, and 
(3) the word also refers to times when religion played a relatively restricted 
part in intellectual activities and thus looked ahead to what today would 
often be seen as a desirable, 'modern' state of affairs, the triumph 
of secularism in most contexts, increasing free enquiry in intellectual 

71 Grudin 1997: 665. 

236 Three institutions and values 

Humanism involved not only the revival of classical learning, which the 
Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74) saw as compatible with Christian spiri- 
tuality, but also a concern with knowledge about the real world as well 
as the encouragement, it is claimed, of 'individualism', deemed positive 
for humanity; 'virtues' which are discussed in chapter 9. In addition to 
learning and 'virtues', there was an attempt to revive Roman institutions, 
the Republic itself, the crowning of the laureate, the Latin epic (as well as 
vernacular canzoniere) , indeed poetry itself was now established as a 'seri- 
ous and noble pursuit' (it had been downplayed in Islam as well) . In fact, 
the name 'humanism' has been attached to other civilizations, to other 
periods and other places. According to Zafrani, ' 2 Islam itself experienced 
humanistic phases in the Magreb during which non-theological studies 
were developed, and scientific and secular knowledge was allowed a freer 
hand. After all Islam was a culture that sometimes reluctantly, sometimes 
enthusiastically, transmitted 'pagan' Greek ideas as well as Islamic ones, 
by means of schools of higher education, madrasas and academies. How- 
ever, the major moves to secularization in schools happened later than in 
Christian Europe. 

But secularization was also problematic in Islam where although a high 
valuation was placed on learning, that was largely the religious sciences. 
For 'in a very real sense, learning is worship'. 73 Moreover learning was 
subordinate to religious prescription, hence the very late introduction of 
the printing press which Islam rejected on the grounds that neither the 
Prophet's words nor his language should be reproduced by mechanical 
means. Thus despite the great achievements made by Islam in other tra- 
ditional fields, that made change in the field of education not impossible 
but difficult. In Turkey, for example, it was only after their defeat at the 
hands of the Russians between 1768 and 1774, resulting in the loss of 
the Crimea, that the need for a drastic reform in education was acknowl- 

The leaders of the ulema, the doctors of Holy Law were therefore asked, and 
agreed, to authorize two basic changes. The first was to accept infidel teachers 
and give them Muslim pupils, an innovation of staggering magnitude in a civ- 
ilization that for more than a millennium had been accustomed to despise the 
other infidels and barbarians as having nothing of any value to contribute, except 
perhaps themselves as raw material.' 1 

That innovation came relatively late, although there were of course peri- 
ods in Islam that have been called 'humanistic'. 

72 Zafrani 1994. 73 Berkey 1992: 5. 74 Lewis 2002: 24. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 237 

Similar phases were found in other cultures. Fernandez-Armesto 
has seen 'what in a western context would be called "humanism" in 
seventeenth-century Japan and Russia', in the first case associated with 
the Buddhist monk Keichu (1640-1701) who was a pioneer in the recov- 
ery of the authentic texts of the Manyoshu, poetic Shinto works of the 
eighth century ce. In Russia in 1648 the clerical brotherhood known as 
the Zealots of Piety persuaded the Tsar to banish the vulgarities of pop- 
ular culture from court. Both were humanistic in the sense of advocating 
a return to the purity of earlier texts,' 3 a religious reform for the benefit 
of the common people. 

In Europe, too, humanism was not a one-off but a recurrent ten- 
dency. Some, such as Southern, have described twelfth-century England 
as 'humanistic', 76 referring largely to the renewal of interest in classical 
Antiquity (which had also occurred in the Carolingian period), a renewal 
that like the later one was also promoted by contact with Islamic learn- 
ing. But what is absent in Southern's classic discussion is any treatment of 
possible external influences; to him all seems to be considered as inter- 
nal invention. That is a highly eurocentric position. In many parts of 
Europe, there was considerable communication with Islamic cultures. 77 
Sicily, which had been part of Muslim 'Ifriqua', was conquered by the 
Normans in the eleventh century, but still had a court that copied earlier 
Muslim ways. The king spoke Arabic and kept a harem as well as being 
a patron of Islamic literature and learning. He had the works of Aristotle 
and Averrhoes translated and distributed to European institutions. Italian 
vernacular literature is also said to have been born in Sicily while Ara- 
bic translations were copied by converted Christians such as the medical 
texts of Constantine. ' 8 However, more important as a link than Sicily was 
medieval Spain. There Christians and Muslims lived side by side, the for- 
mer being known in the south as Mozarabs, and followed a Muslim style 
of living, even to the extent of harems and circumcision. When Toledo 
was captured by the Christians, the conquered and converted Muslims 
were then known as the Mudejars and during the twelfth century, that city 
became important as a centre for the dissemination of Arabic science and 
learning throughout Europe. Under the direction of Alphonso the Wise, 
Archbishop Raymond began the translation of Arab works into Spanish, 
and later into Latin, with the help of Mudejars and Jews, including the 
whole encyclopaedia of Aristotle, with commentary, as well as works by 
Euclid, Ptolemy, Galen, and Hippocrates.' 9 Earlier, as governor of the 
reconquered town of Murcia, Alphonso had a school especially built for 

75 Fernandez-Armesto 1995: 279. 76 Southern 1970. 77 Asin 1926: 239. 
78 Asin 1926: 242. 79 Asin 1926: 244-5. 

238 Three institutions and values 

Muhammad al-Riquat where Muslims, Jews, and Christians were taught 
together. Later in Seville he founded a general Latin and Arabic college at 
which Muslims taught medicine and science side by side with Christian 
professors, described as an 'interdenominational University'. 80 

It was, as Asin pointed out, an Asian culture of 'undeniable superior- 
ity' 81 that influenced Europe of that period, an influence that has been 
traced by him even in the great work of Dante, The Divine Comedy, specif- 
ically in the legends of the hadith about the experience of the ascension of 
Mohamed and the nocturnal journey to Jerusalem (Miraf), from which 
the author draws out parallels with Dante's journey to Heaven and Hell. 
Christian interest in Mohamed went back much further and very early 
on a Mozarab Christian writer (possibly Eulogius of Cordoba, d. 859 ce) 
actually produced a biography of Mohamed; in 1 143 Robert of Reading, 
Archdeacon of Pamplona, also made a Latin translation of the Qu'ran. 
Knowledge of Islam and its mythology was therefore available. In fact, 
Dante's teacher, Brunetto Latini, was sent as ambassador of Florence 
to the court of Alphonso the Wise (1221-84) in 1260 where he would 
have had some exposure to that learning. Alphonso fought the Moors but 
nevertheless acquired Muslim learning in astronomy and philosophy. At 
his court the ambassador would have become acquainted with much of 
the literary work from Spain, so that this contact may well have led to 
Dante being influenced by these ideas. Indeed it has been claimed that the 
poet's philosophical system derived not directly from Arab philosophers 
themselves but from the Illuministic Mystics founded by Ibn Masarra of 
Cordoba (and especially from Ibn Arabi) whose ideas were transmitted to 
Augustinian scholastics such as Dun Scotus, Roger Bacon, and Raymond 

The development of humanism was greatly assisted by the Muslim 
interest in the works of Aristotle who stressed the importance of studying 
human kind ('reality'), as distinct from faith. 82 The end of the Middle 
Ages saw the reductio artis ad theologiam, 'the reducing of everything to 
theological argument', as inadequate for the new situation in Europe, 
especially in Italy where commerce had become increasingly important, 
where the towns expanded and where culture and society were changing. 
The new education required for commerce and the bourgeoisie had its 
origin in the schools set up in the free cities from the late thirteenth cen- 
tury to cater to the needs of the urban population, rejecting the medieval 
tradition, and in the Renaissance turning more and more to the classical 
learning, much assisted by Arab translations, that developed from the 

80 Asin 1926: 254. 81 Asin 1926: 244. 

82 See Peters 1968, Walzer 1962, Gutas 1998. 

The theft of institutions, towns, and universities 239 

fourteenth to the seventeenth century. It is therefore paradoxical that the 
New Learning in Europe was much influenced not only in the institu- 
tions of higher education but in their move towards secularism by contact 
with a religious culture which also preserved secularized 'ancient science', 
the 'pagan' tradition of classics. But of course it also developed its own 
search for classical texts in Europe as well as making contact with the 
Greek scholarship of the Christian east at Constantinople. 

For it is significant that the Renaissance and the humanist movement 
itself was given a great boost when an Orthodox delegation arrived from 
Constantinople for the interchurch council in Ferrara and Florence in 
1439, seeking help against the Turkish advance. In Florence the dele- 
gation was hosted by Cosimo de Medici who was greatly impressed by 
the Platonic learning of the Greeks. As a result he founded the Platonic 
Academy which had such an influence on European learning. Leading 
the delegation was George Gemistus Plethon (c. 1355-1450/2), a Byzan- 
tine scholar who had studied at the Ottoman court at Adrianopolis. He 
introduced not only Plato but the geographer Strabo whose works helped 
to change European notions of space. Other scholars connected with 
the Academy were George of Trebizond (1395-1484), Basil Bessarion 
(1403-72) also of Trebizond, and Theodore Gaza, all scholars obviously 
coming from towns in Asia. Thus the whole movement towards human- 
ism, secular learning, and the Renaissance gained great strength from the 
east and, indirectly, from cultures that were dominantly religious. 

To conclude, institutions of higher education certainly differed in the 
west, but only relatively recently in a significant way for secular learning. 
In essence they were not limited to the west, nor did it have a special type 
that led the way to 'capitalism'. That is teleological history. 

In discussing the problem of the university in the European Middle 
Ages, Le Goff has written 'In the beginning there were the towns. The 
Western medieval intellectual was born with them. ' 83 This did not happen 
in the so-called Carolingian renascence but only in the twelfth century. 
But towns, intellectuals, and universities were not limited to the west, nor 
were the institutions fundamentally different, although they later became 
so. The question of universities like the question of towns is a technical 
matter and should be treated as such. In what respects do they differ 
from other institutions of higher education elsewhere? Instead it has been 
turned into a categorical matter where high value has been placed upon 
the categories. That is not the way the story of the past should be written. 

83 Le Goff 1993: 5. 

The appropriation of values: humanism, 
democracy, and individualism 

In an earlier chapter, I explained how classicists had claimed for the 
European Antiquity of Greece and Rome the very origin of democracy, 
freedom, and other values. Equally at a later period the notion of human- 
ism and of humanistic studies was appropriated by the Occident for its 
own particular history. The claim was exaggerated and overlooked the 
question of representation, of liberties, of human values in other commu- 
nities. But it is one that, even more shrilly today, the west has continued 
to make, arrogating to itself the effective monopoly of these virtues. One 
of the most disturbing myths of the west is that the values of our 'Judeo- 
Christian' civilization have to be distinguished from the east in general 
and from Islam in particular. For Islam has the same roots as Judaism 
and Christianity as well as many of the same values. Forms of represen- 
tation existed in most societies, especially in tribal regimes, though not 
'democratic' by most contemporary electoral standards. However, west- 
ern democracy has hijacked many of the values that certainly existed in 
other societies, humanism and the triad individualism, equality, freedom, 
as well as the notion of charity that has been seen as a particularly Chris- 
tian virtue. However there is no general agreement on what constitutes a 
virtuous life in the west, so this treatment will necessarily appear some- 
what scrappy. I have selected some of the more prominent, talked-about 
qualities claimed by the west. Nevertheless, all of these western ideas 
about its own uniqueness need qualifying very radically. 

In considering the virtues claimed by the west, 'rationality' should 
clearly be included. I do not do so here because I have treated the sub- 
ject at length in The east in the west (1996); so too have many others. 
Some writers have seen eastern societies as lacking rationality altogether, 
an idea challenged (for Africa) in Evans-Pritchard's Witchcraft, oracles 
and magic among the Azande (1937). Others have sought to distinguish 
a western form of rationality from an earlier one, as has been done in 
the case of capitalism. Differences of course exist especially as I have 
argued between the 'logic' developed by literate societies, often of a for- 
mal academic kind, and the processes of sequential reasoning in purely 


The appropriation of values 241 

oral cultures. Nevertheless the idea that the west alone has rationality or 
can reason logically is totally unacceptable as an account of the present 
or the past state of affairs. 


Nevertheless, the Whig notion of history assumes a constant progress not 
only in rationality but in the practice and values of human life, tending 
towards the emergence of more 'humanistic' goals and achievements. 
Living standards, technology, and science have made a constant move 
forward, a 'progress'. And it is commonly thought that a similar shift 
can be found in values. The sociologist Norbert Elias, as we have seen, 
writes of the emergence of the 'Civilizing process' at the time of the 
European Renaissance; he is discussing certain values in respect of which 
any vectorial movement seems more questionable. 

First of all, what do we understand by humanism? We use the term in 
a number of ways, sometimes for the 'humanity of Christ', sometimes for 
the secular religion of humanity, at others for the work of those Renais- 
sance scholars who devoted their energies to the study of the Greek and 
Roman classics, in other words to the 'pagan' as distinct from the Chris- 
tian tradition which had long tried to set them aside. Today the term tends 
to refer to 'human values', which almost come to be defined as human 
rights and sometimes to secular rather than religious approaches as well 
as to the separation between political and religious power and authority. 
These rights are often taken for granted but certainly need to be defined 
(what humans, at what period, in what context? If they are rights, who 
has the correlative duties?). 

Humanism and secularization 

Europeans often trace a number of what they deem central contemporary 
values back not only to Antiquity but more recently to the Enlightenment 
of the eighteenth century. Those values are held to include tolerance, 1 
hence plurality of belief, and secularism. Secularism is considered as a 
key to intellectual development since it freed thinking about the universe 
from the limitations of church dogma. One goal of modernization has 
been the separation of the sphere of the church from that of intellectual 

1 Free-thinkers like Bayle in the 1680s took China as an example of religious tolerance. 
Locke and Leibnitz and William Temple were equally impressed. Voltaire too praised 
their tolerance and saw the honour and welfare of the inhabitants as protected by the law 
applied throughout the empire. He attributed the reasonable nature of their government 
to the absence of theocratic rule (Blue 1999: 64, 89). 

242 Three institutions and values 

activity more generally, science (in the broad sense of knowledge) on the 
one hand and theology on the other, which parallels the separation on the 
political level between church and state. Secularization is interpreted not 
as the abandonment of religious belief but as the confinement of 'religion' 
to its 'proper' sphere. God is not dead but lives in his own place, the City 
of God. Indeed Petrarch, one of the leaders of the Italian Renaissance, 
saw the revival of Antiquity as reinforcing the Christian message, but for 
many it meant the secularization of many spheres of social activity. 

What defines that proper sphere is a matter of dispute and the cri- 
teria are constantly changing. Christ declared that his followers should 
render unto Caesar what belonged to him. That injunction has not pre- 
vented many Christians from insisting that politics should be conducted 
according to Christian principles and in the same spirit. With the fall of 
Rome the Roman Empire became the Holy Roman Empire; the Pope 
and Catholic beliefs were a dominant factor in the politics of many states. 
With the coming of the Reformation Henry VIII was still King by the 
Grace of God and as a result was also the Defender of the Faith, as his 
descendants have remained to this day. There are even a number of con- 
temporary European politicians who wish to define Europe as a Chris- 
tian continent and so to identify polity and religion, as is common in 

That aspect of the Enlightenment, the emphasis on a secular world 
view, was undoubtedly good for science. Think of Galileo during the 
Renaissance. Think of Huxley's debates with the Bishop Wilberforce 
about Darwinism in the mid-nineteenth century. However, not all 
Europe, not all individuals, were equally affected by that movement. 
Many people remained committed to what the secularists thought of as 
fundamentalist ideas. Secularism was not doing away with God but seeing 
him occupy less and less social and intellectual space. It was accompanied 
by the disestablishment of many churches, by the confiscation of church 
property, by the secularization of religious schools, by the decrease of 
church attendance, by the diminishing use of prayer. But in most politi- 
cians, most rulers, most countries still make a bow towards the dominant 
religion, even if that is becoming increasingly formulaic. 

We would never have reached a situation where an Enlightenment in 
this sense had to take place, had we not been converted to a single, dom- 
inant, monotheistic religion. In Europe that religion tried to regulate the 
people's way of life in a very radical manner. In every village a costly 
church was erected, a custodian appointed, services held, births, mar- 
riages, and deaths celebrated. Villagers attended on Sundays and listened 
to long sermons putting forward religious themes, values, rights. There 
was little enough space for the secular. 

The appropriation of values 243 

Contrast the situation in earlier China. The religious tradition had no 
dominant player. Greater plurality obtained. Indeed Confucianism, while 
no stranger to morality, pursued a secular approach, rejecting supernatu- 
ral explanations. It provided an alternative set of beliefs to ancestor wor- 
ship, to local shrines, to Buddhism. With this plurality, an Enlightenment 
encouraging the freedom of secularization was hardly needed. Science 
pursued its course steadily and came into minimal conflict with religious 
beliefs. It did not seem to have experienced the same radical shifts as 
in Europe or the Near East under monotheistic regimes. Under neo- 
Confucianism, for example, plurality and secularization already existed 
in some considerable measure, sufficiently to allow the development of 
science and of alternative views. The parallels between China and Renais- 
sance humanism are impressive, including the emphasis on ethics and lit- 
erature, the recourse to the classics, the interest in editing texts, the belief 
that a general 'humane' education is better than a specialist training as 
an administrator. 2 

Indeed, a great deal of work in scientific fields was carried out in China, 
as Needham has shown in his magisterial series (discussed in chapter 5). 3 
Elvin suggests that the somewhat secular attitude characteristic of China 
is later accentuated and that the mindset of the elite shows a similar 
move towards a disenchantment of the world in late imperial China, that 
is, there was 'a trend towards seeing fewer dragons and miracles, not 
unlike the disenchantment that began to spread across the Europe of 
the Enlightenment'. 4 It has also been claimed that a belief in Buddhism 
has some of the same consequences because of its qualified rejection of 
the supernatural. Those features were not simply the result of European 

Of course, even the monotheistic traditions allowed some science and 
technology to develop, just as polytheism hindered some. Here too we 
need a grid rather than a categorical opposition. That was especially true 
with Islam, despite the reported words of Caliph Omar, who declared 
'if what is written [in the remaining books in the Library of Alexandria] 
agrees with the Book of God, they are not required, if it disagrees, they 
are not desired. Destroy them therefore.' 3 Nevertheless the traditions of 
enquiry in Greece were built upon and considerable achievements were 
recorded. In Europe many areas were influenced by Islamic scholarship, 
especially medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, which helped towards 
a kind of early Renaissance. The main Italian Renaissance itself also saw 
a move towards secularization, what Weber called the disenchantment 

2 I owe this final comment to Peter Burke. 

3 Needham 1954-. 4 Elvin 2004: xi. 5 Barnes 2002: 74. 

244 Three institutions and values 

of the world, especially in the arts. Following classical precedents in the 
Renaissance the plastic arts and the theatre freed themselves from many 
earlier restraints, so that non-religious themes predominated. Music too 
developed its secular forms at the level of high culture. 

It is in the sense of secular that the word 'humanism' has sometimes 
been used to characterize particular periods in other, non-Christian tra- 
ditions. Zafrani speaks of phases of 'humanism' in the Islamic cultures of 
Andalusia and the Near East, when scholars did not devote their entire 
attention to religious matters but also enquired into the 'sciences' and 
the 'arts'. He sees the same happening from time to time under Judaism. 
These periods again did not involve the rejection of religious beliefs but 
rather their containment to a more limited sphere. 

However, even today, humanism has not carried all before it. There 
is no one-way path from the Enlightenment. While many early leaders 
of recently independent states were secular, that situation has ceased to 
be the case; in India for example, and certainly in the Near East, secular 
regimes have been 'changed' or threatened. Secularism has been dealt a 
blow in the Near East by external interference that threatens local religion. 
Egypt has had its difficulties with the Muslim Brotherhood, as have other 
countries with various Islamic groups. To some extent this movement 
is a rejection of humanism, a shift towards fundamentalism, partly to 
compensate for political threats. Nevertheless it has to be taken seriously, 
in Chechnya, in Ireland, in the Philippines, in Gujarat and in many other 
places where religious affiliation has become of central importance in 
a wider social and political context. Indeed the west also continues to 
export many thousands of missionaries to all parts of the globe, some of 
whom strongly resist post-Enlightenment thinking, in relation not only to 
secularization in general but to doctrines of evolution, monogenesis, the 
use of contraception, abortion, and in many other ways. Such resistance 
marks a percentage of the population of even the most advanced capitalist 

Humanism, human values, and westernization: 
rhetoric and practice 

In the last chapter I have discussed the contribution of humanism to the 
education process, mainly in a European context. But we also need to 
look not only at a specific period but at the way in which the concept has 
been identified with the west as a 'human value' . It is clear that humanism, 
either as respect for 'human values' or as a commitment to the secular, 
is no recent invention of 'modern' or western societies. Human values 
obviously vary according to the humanity involved, but some values are 

The appropriation of values 245 

widespread, for example, the notions of distributive justice, of reciprocity, 
of peaceful co-existence, of fertility, of well-being, even of some form of 
representation in government or in other hierarchies of authority, of which 
'democracy', as interpreted in the west, is one variety. Modern societies 
are also held to be more scientific, secular, in their attitudes but as the 
anthropologist Malinowski pointed out, 6 a 'scientific', technological, or 
pragmatic approach to the world is widespread and may co-exist with 
religious attitudes, that is, with an approach involving a belief in the 
supernatural (in the definition of E. B. Tylor). Even in oral cultures we 
find a degree of agnosticism. In literate societies that scepticism may 
achieve written expression as a doctrine but is also present in oral cultures 
as one element of their world view, as I have tried to demonstrate with 
the various versions I have recorded of the long Bagre recitation of the 
LoDagaa of northern Ghana. ' Even in so-called traditional societies, not 
everyone believes everything; indeed many myths incorporate a measure 
of disbelief. 

But the whole notion of European colonial rule in many parts of the 
world was bound up with the 'humanizing' mission of educational pro- 
grammes, often in the hands of religious bodies who had genuine edu- 
cational goals but saw their role as one of Christianizing the population, 
of getting rid of local practices and introducing European standards. In 
this project the teaching of the classics often played an important part at 
the secondary level; it was always the classics of European Antiquity, per- 
ceived as allies to Christianity (as Petrarch insisted) and as inculcating a 
lifestyle centred on humanistic values. These efforts met with a consider- 
able measure of success. Some of the finest European teachers in certain 
select secondary schools were trained in the classics at the same time 
as being committed to Christianity. They encouraged their best pupils 
to follow in their footsteps and it is significant that, leading up to Inde- 
pendence in 1947 when a university was established in the West African 
state of Ghana, the first of the colonial territories in Africa to receive 
its independence, the initial Department to be completely Africanized 
in personnel was the Department of Classics. Its head went on not 
only to translate Greek texts into his native language but to become the 
first Ghanaian head of the university and subsequently head of the UN 
University in Tokyo. Such was the power provided by the classics and by 
the 'humanities'! 

With the disappearance of colonialism some politicians have associated 
the emergence of 'humanism' with the process of globalization which is 
also seen as one of westernization. One widespread contribution to such 

6 Malinowski 1948. 7 Goody 1972b. 

246 Three institutions and values 

an outcome has been the world-wide movement for Independence after 
the Second World War. Many of the early leaders of the new nations were 
of a secular bent - well-educated individuals such as Nehru in India, 
Nkrumah in Ghana (the first of the new leaders of sub-Saharan Africa), 
Kenyatta in Kenya, Nyerere in Tanzania, Nassar in Egypt. They opposed 
the Western colonial powers and won their independence (their 'free- 
dom'), adopting their opponents' value-laden slogans in the process of 
so doing. I well remember a demonstration in the early 1950s in the town 
of Bobo-Diolassou in the French colonial territory of Upper Volta (now 
Burkina Faso) where an orderly mass of African workers surrounded by 
French police were demonstrating, carrying banners proclaiming 'Lib- 
erte, Egalite, Fraternite'. 

These movements were supported by the western powers and by the 
United Nations in the name of liberty and democracy, the expression 
of the will of the people. Commentators and politicians tend to see the 
values associated with them, such as respect for human dignity, as being 
imported to communities that previously lacked them. At the same time 
these outside bodies, like everybody else, often fail to live up to their 
own proclaimed standards. For example the USA was also interested in 
promoting its own agenda which was partly dictated by its enormous 
consumption of oil and by its desire to protect its 'way of life', 'capital- 
ism', against possible Soviet expansion, even if the latter was achieved by 
majority rule. The Near East in particular suffered from this Cold War 
and the help given to 'non-democratic' regimes that supported some of 
these aims. In the course of containing communism and of securing its oil, 
one commentator writes, 'The USA spared no efforts to back, promote 
and even impose regimes in the domain of Islam which were thoroughly 
corrupt and contrary to all the democratic and liberal values in defence 
of which the USA claims to act.' 8 In other words there was a gross dis- 
crepancy between the rhetorically proclaimed value of democracy and 
the actual policy pursued. 

We are constantly faced by declarations of universal 'humanistic' val- 
ues by politicians and individuals alike, and yet their constant breach 
in specific situations. Take two contemporary examples. Laid down in 
the Geneva Convention are strict rules about the treatment of combat- 
ants and civilians captured in war. Recently the US and allied forces 
that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq transported a number of prisoners to 
Guantanamo Bay in Cuba where the US has an extra-territorial base and 
where they have been kept in frightening conditions. Following the dec- 
laration that these captives of varied nationalities could not be considered 

8 Saikal 2003: 67. 

The appropriation of values 247 

prisoners-of-war and that the Cuban base was not US territory, the 
inmates have been denied full international rights or indeed even rights 
under US law. In other words they were denied 'freedom', the access 
to lawyers, and their 'human rights' generally, a situation subsequently 
condemned by the UN. 9 A similar contradiction took place with the cap- 
ture of Saddam Hussein on 13 December 2003 after he had been caught 
hiding 'like a rat', according to one coalition spokesman. Despite ear- 
lier protests at their prisoners being displayed on television, held to be 
contrary to the Geneva convention, pictures showed the former ruler, 
who as the commander-in-chief was entitled to be treated as a prisoner 
of war, having his hair searched for lice and his mouth being given a 
detailed inspection, no doubt for hidden objects. Such pictures undoubt- 
edly breached the Geneva convention regarding the public humiliation 
of prisoners. 

The second instance has to do with the recent bombing of Tikrit (and 
other towns) in response to the death of American soldiers in the neigh- 
bourhood, some months after President Bush had announced the end of 
hostilities. Such collective punishment, of the kind often carried out by 
Israeli troops in Palestinian communities under their control, is exactly 
what the Allies protested and acted against during the Second World War 
when the German forces took collective action against villages and com- 
munities after they had come under attack, for example, at the Ardeantine 
caves in Italy or in the village of Oradour in France. Those actions were 
considered to be war-crimes and led to international punishment. 

In sum, the west has laid claims to a set of values centring around the 
concept of humanism and humane behaviour. While there have undoubt- 
edly been some changes over time that could be so characterized, all soci- 
eties have standards of what they regard as humane. Sometimes these are 
phrased in universalistic terms, such as 'thou shalt not kill'. But such state- 
ments are often rhetorical and apply only to certain groups, not to the 
'other', the enemy, the terrorist, the traitor. That is very clear in wartime 
where such widespread values are often suppressed or upturned, despite 
the best efforts of bodies like the International Red Cross to ensure their 
maintenance in the contemporary world. 


One of the main features of newly 'emergent humanisms' is 'democracy' 
which has been closely tied to the notions of 'freedom', 'equality', civic 

9 I have to admit that having had these rights largely respected when I was a prisoner of 
war of the Fascists in Italy and of the Nazis in Germany, I feel strongly on this issue. 
Obviously in those countries worse things happened to political prisoners. 

248 Three institutions and values 

participation, and 'human rights'. Clearly as far as representative gov- 
ernment goes, there has been some general movement towards a new 
participation in many parts of the world over recent centuries. But that 
movement needs to be seen in perspective. Early groups certainly had 
much direct participation. Today matters have become more complex. 
Greater participation in voting is accompanied by less practical par- 
ticipation in other areas because the government in which humans are 
participating has become more complex, more remote, and embracing 
more people. That means greater professionalization of politicians and 
less direct representation. 

A wider problem arises when democracy today is viewed as a universal 
value of which the contemporary western world is the primary custodian 
and the only model. But is it? Let me begin by suggesting that democratic 
procedures have to be viewed contextually, in relation to specific institu- 
tions. I have heard members of the contemporary work-force argue that 
there is no democracy in the workplace. Certainly there is only a limited 
amount in the institutions of learning. But compare the contemporary 
workplace with that existing under conditions of simple agriculture. My 
Ghanaian friend whom I took to visit a local factory in England saw 
women standing in line over a workbench, punching a 'clock' on enter- 
ing and leaving the workplace. 'Are they slaves?' he asked me in his own 
language. His own labour in the fields was of a much 'freer' kind, that 
did not involve relationships of authority. 

In Ancient Greece, the concept of democracy referred to 'the rule 
of the people', and stood in opposition to autocracy or even 'tyranny'. 
The will of the people was determined by elections, but they were lim- 
ited to 'free' males, excluding slaves, women, and resident strangers. So 
in the political context democracy in Europe has in the past also been 
frequently restricted. Today, in what is seen as 'full democracy', every 
man and woman has a single vote and the elections take place at regu- 
lar, arbitrary, intervals. There is an 'individualization' of representation, 
although research shows that husband and wife tend to vote the same 
way but no longer as a household or lineage. In this form the practice of 
democracy is new. In Britain, voting was only widened in 1 832 to include 
male householders, while women did not achieve the vote until after the 
First World War, in France much later. Even in the USA, supposedly 
the epitome of modern democracy in the eyes of de Tocqueville, George 
Washington advocated confining participation in elections to white 'gen- 
tlemen', that is, to land owners and college graduates. In each case there 
was earlier a severely restricted franchise. The use of the ballot box and 
of the selection it entails is dependent on the view that the choice is 
free and unencumbered; the French left at first rejected female suffrage 

The appropriation of values 249 

on the grounds that women would be too prone to vote as the clergy 
told them. 

Even now there are some technical problems about the interpretation of 
choice, as was remarked in the US election in Florida in November 2000, 
as well as about the question of what a majority consists of, for instance, 
simple or overall, by number of votes or by number of units (states) . 
Secondly the matter is further complicated by the problem of coer- 
cion, whether by the offer of pre-election bribes as in eighteenth-century 
England, or by post-election rewards, the extent to which promises of 
future benefits are part of the process itself. Differential access to pub- 
licity because of political control of the radio (as in Russia) or economic 
control by means of finance (as in USA) can also limit the optimal scope 
of freedom of choice. 

In the west, electoral democracy is now seen not simply as one among a 
number of alternative modes of representation, but is regarded as a form 
of government suitable for introduction in all places and at all times. 10 In 
that sense it has taken the form of a universalized value. The object of the 
contemporary western powers has been to promote democracy and to do 
away with regimes such as those in the USSR or in Yugoslavia that did 
not meet the criteria, although those regimes objected that political free- 
dom of choice was not the only value to be considered. At Independence 
in Africa, the colonial rulers insisted on handing over power to elected 
governments, according to what in British terms was labelled the West- 
minster model, in order to ensure popular consent. In fact these forms of 
government did not persist, as I have mentioned, partly because people 
voted along 'tribal' or sectarian lines. They were followed by one-party 
rule, deemed essential by the rulers to consolidate the new state, and 
then by military coups as the only way to change a one-party regime. 
For many a new state, the main political problem has not been the shift 
towards democracy but that of establishing a central government over a 
territory that had none before. That remains very difficult where the state 
includes groups defined by primordial characteristics, tribal or religious, 
which may inhibit the establishment of a 'party' government in the west- 
ern sense but does not exclude those groups themselves from having their 
own representative ('democratic') procedures. 

Israel was a partial exception to this sequence (as too were India and 
Malaysia). It is lauded as the only democratic state in the Near East, 

One of my interlocutors in Alexandria objected to the description of democracy as a 
form of representation, claiming it was 'a form of culture'. However, even where electoral 
procedures are used in the political sphere, they rarely obtain in other contexts, such as 
employment or the family. 

250 Three institutions and values 

though that form of government has done nothing to inhibit its enor- 
mous accumulation of armaments and soldiery to defend itself and to 
threaten others; this small country has twelve divisions, one of the largest 
airforces in the world, and the nuclear weapons that are forbidden to or 
frowned upon in other powers. Nor does it inhibit the frequent selection 
of former soldiers to lead a civilian government (as in the USA), nor 
yet prevent atrocities as in the Arab village of Deir Yasin, in the camps 
of Sabra and Shatilla in the Lebanon, or more recently in Jenin on the 
West Bank. Nevertheless by placing it in the category 'democratic', it is 
automatically contrasted with the 'corrupt', authoritarian government of 
the Palestinians who like most other Arabs are considered never to have 
known 'true democracy'. 

Such an unambiguous preference for one form of government regard- 
less of context is new. In Ancient Greece, in Rome too, over time there 
were major changes in regime, which shifted between 'democracy' and 
'tyranny', or between a republic and an empire, just as has happened in 
Africa since Independence. Even in Europe, there was no widely held 
view until the eighteenth century, and even later, that democracy was the 
only acceptable form of government. There were shifts of various kinds, 
not necessarily of a violent nature. Force was sometimes used. Radical 
changes in forms of government have been denied for earlier social for- 
mations. Rebellion occurred but not revolution; that is, people rebelled in 
order to change the incumbents but not the socio-political system itself. 1 1 
The validity of that statement is not always clear. In many such societies, 
there were shifts in the mode of government as well as of representatives. 
It is true that the overthrow of the entire system according to a prepared 
plan was rare in earlier societies, especially in pre-literate ones. But there 
has often been some oscillation not only within centralized regimes, but 
between them and those tribal ones that are described as segmentary, or 
between the location of power at the centre or at the periphery. Change 
in the nature of government was characteristic of earlier regimes, when 
'democracy' was only one of the possibilities. 

When we speak of democratic procedures, we think of the ways in which 
the opinion of people should be formally taken into account. There are 
many ways of doing this. In the west, the electorate are consulted by 
secret (usually written) ballot every four, five, or six years. The number is 
arbitrary. It is a compromise between testing the opinions of the demos and 
pursuing a consistent policy over a given period. Some have argued that 
the public should be consulted more frequently, especially on major issues 
like a declaration of war, which in Britain does not even require a vote of 

11 Gluckman 1955. 

The appropriation of values 251 

Parliament because of the fiction of the royal prerogative (yet the adoption 
of the Euro does!). It is difficult to argue that we live in a democracy (i.e., 
under the rule of the people) when governments can decide a major 
course of action such as war against the will of the majority. On the other 
hand, should we be ruled by constant referenda and opinion polls? Or 
does chaos lie in that direction? It could be argued that democracy is only 
really ensured by the ability to recall representatives when they cease to 
represent, so that the will of a people could throw out a government about 
to engage in war against the wishes of a majority of the country. If this 
'true democratic' possibility had been available, a number of European 
governments would have been toppled at the outset of the invasion of 

However it could also be argued that some social programmes require 
a longer period to inaugurate than four or five years and that a regime 
should therefore be chosen for a more extended period. That was fre- 
quently the claim in post-Independence Africa, for example, when some 
elected governments turned themselves into one-party regimes. Of course 
there is nothing to stop a government from being elected for a number 
of successive occasions to enable it to carry out a more extensive pro- 
gramme, but what if the electors themselves 'choose' a government to be 
selected for a long term or indeed permanently? 

Modern democracy does present a number of problems even for 
democrats. Hitler was elected by the German people and proceeded to 
turn the regime into a dictatorship. Communist parties, too, may have 
been elected in the first place but have had no hesitation in setting up 
'a dictatorship of the proletariat'. What is an elected dictatorship? It is 
a regime that has postponed or abandoned 'normal' elections and sup- 
pressed the opposition, though it may make use of referenda. But what if 
it has done so with the consent or choice of the majority? The problem 
for democrats is that one-party regimes and similar systems do not allow 
for electoral change. 

Another problem is that the proponents of democracy allow no system 
other than their chosen procedures to count as 'the rule of the people'. 
But such consultation could involve choosing a leader by acclamation 
rather than by vote. Even voting procedures may be thought to represent 
the will of God rather than of the people, as in elections in the Vatican 
or in Cambridge colleges where the votes for a Pope or a Master are 
recorded in the chapel. The choice between political parties, which are 
implied by an electoral system, has not met with great success in much 
of Africa where tribal and local loyalties are of greater relevance. Nor 
in other parts of the world, such as Iraq, where 'fundamental' religious 
beliefs or linguistic identifications are involved. 

252 Three institutions and values 

If the term 'democracy' refers to the kind of recurrent electoral proce- 
dure developed most prominently in Europe in the nineteenth century, 
it constitutes only one possible form of representation. Most political 
regimes of whatever kind have some mode of representation. It is per- 
haps possible to visualize in the abstract an authoritarian regime that is 
completely autocratic, but if it does not in some way take into account the 
wishes of the people, its days are likely to be numbered, even under what 
are called dictatorships or despotisms. For example, it has been remarked 
that in early China neither the Ch'in nor Wang Mang probably deserved 
their reputation for despotism; there were a number of checks and bal- 
ances. The classical texts themselves formed a check on government, as 
with the writings of Confucius, referred to in chapter 4. And as a result 
the literati often found themselves in opposition to the current regime. 12 

There are a number of situations in which modern states have not 
seen democracy as universally appropriate, even in politics. In some parts 
of the USA, until recently the black population had no right to vote 
in a country where everyone else had an entitlement. Nationally this 
substantial minority was eventually given the vote. Had they been in a 
majority, it is doubtful if the white population would have voluntarily 
agreed to this. The country would have remained an apartheid regime as 
in earlier South Africa. 

In Palestine, towards the end of the British mandate, the government 
proposed a single-state solution to the Jewish-Arab question and tried to 
establish an assembly based on democratic principles. The Jewish popula- 
tion rejected this offer since they were in a minority. Later on, when most 
of the Arabs had left or been driven out in the territory of newly formed 
Israel, they established a 'democracy' with reduced rights for those Mus- 
lims who remained; today those who had left have been refused 'the right 
of return', a right that the Jews themselves had loudly proclaimed but 
which in the present case would threaten their 'democratic' majority. In 
religiously, 'racially', or ethnically divided states, one 'man', one vote 
is not necessarily an acceptable solution; the principle of one man, one 
vote may lead to a permanent majority or even to 'ethnic' cleansing, as 
in Cyprus. Where full democracy is attempted under these conditions, it 
may create a struggle for increased demographic reproduction in order 
to gain a majority, as many Protestants in Northern Ireland believe to be 
the case with the Catholics. 

Is democracy, for example, the answer for contemporary Iraq? It could 
be argued that with heavily divided religious and ethnic communities, 
one should opt for 'power sharing', as was recently done in Northern 

12 Nylan 1999: 70, 80ff. 

The appropriation of values 253 

Ireland, so that there is no permanent majority of one group (the Shia 
or the Protestant) over another but rather a 'consociational democracy', 
a very different institution. In Ancient Greece, the vote was limited to 
citizens. The notion of citizenship, often associated with liberal and even 
revolutionary regimes, may in practice involve the exclusion of a large 
category of non-citizens. 'Civus Romanus sum' implies that there are 
residents of the same territory that do not share equal rights, like Turk- 
ish immigrants in Germany until recently, or any immigrant or indeed 
sojourner in Switzerland or in India who is unable to purchase land or 
house. Citizenship is an excluding as well as an including concept. 

But even within the notion of citizenship, the semi-permanent attach- 
ment of the majority, to a specific religious group for example, may 
mean the effective exclusion of similar, less numerous groups on a 
long-term basis. In order to counter a relatively permanent imbalance 
which virtually excludes the short-term changing of votes on which 'full 
democracy' depends, there may, as we have seen, be a resort to power- 
sharing to ensure representation (and thus social 'order' or acquiescence) . 
Another 'quasi-democratic' technique is 'positive discrimination' which 
gives additional privileges, perhaps in a national assembly, perhaps in 
training, to certain underprivileged minority groups. This procedure has 
been accepted for blacks in the USA, for women elsewhere under cer- 
tain 'electoral' arrangements, but the first example on a national scale 
known to me was its introduction for 'scheduled castes' in the Indian 
constitution of 1947 which was largely written by Dr Ambedkar, himself 
by origin belonging to an untouchable caste and who felt that his com- 
munity would not receive 'fair' treatment under a Hindu government 
controlled by other castes. 

Despite these problems, today's climate has seen democracy become 
a highly value-laden concept considered to have universal applicability. 
But while democracy is held in great regard rhetorically and looked upon 
(mistakenly) as the invention of European cultures, the practice is some- 
what different. Even the reference has changed. Whereas originally it 
meant the rule of the people, the meaning has narrowed and it now refers 
quite specifically to regimes where parliaments are elected every four 
or five years by universal secret ballot. Even so, the notion has become 
questioned under some circumstances. Not all elections are considered 
'democratic' by the west. Under Arafat, the Palestinians had an elected 
leader who offered to submit himself to re-election. On 24 June 2003 
President Bush of the United States suggested a peace plan for the Middle 
East, the first item of which was that the Palestinians should elect a new 
leader because Arafat was tainted with terrorism. So too of course was 
the former Israeli Prime Minister, Begin, and some would argue Sharon 

254 Three institutions and values 

as well. One may hope for different leaders in a foreign country, but to 
demand the 'democratic' replacement of elected politicians as a condi- 
tion of negotiation (as in the case of Hamas) is arrogant in the extreme, 
not democracy at all but the expression of the dictatorial demands of a 
dominant world power who regards interference in the running of other 
countries as a legitimate aspect of its foreign policy. In the recent past 
such a policy has openly supported dictators rather than democratically 
chosen leaders and even today has little difficulty in allying itself to the 
strongly centralized monarchy of Saudi Arabia or to the military rulers of 
post-coup Pakistan. 

One major excuse for invading Iraq was that the regime was undemo- 
cratic, indeed a brutal dictatorship. There does not exist any interna- 
tional agreement on the nature of the kind of government a country 
must adopt. Before the Second World War the governments of both 
Germany and Italy came into power as the result of democratic elections. 
That was not true of Spain, but the Allies made no attempt to depose 
Franco after the war, even though he came into office as the result of a 
fascist military coup and a bloody civil war. So did many of the govern- 
ments of Africa, some in South America and elsewhere (Fiji, for exam- 
ple) . On the other hand, the presence of a democratic government in the 
Caribbean island of Grenada did not prevent it being invaded by the USA, 
even though it was a Commonwealth territory associated with its closest 

The 'democracy' that exists at home is rarely applied on a world scale. 
Electoral practice operates very differently in decision-making at an inter- 
national level. In the General Assembly of the United Nations, delegates 
are chosen by governments and each has a single vote irrespective of the 
number of inhabitants - one government, rather than one person, one 
vote. The eighteen-member Security Council is elected by the Assembly, 
with the exception of five permanent members, the victor nations in the 
Second World War, each of whom has a veto. It is a 'legal' system created 
by the victors. In that Council, majority decisions do not count because 
of the veto. In any case the dominating powers, and specifically the one 
superpower, may use their resources, military, economic, cultural, to put 
pressure on others to vote the way they wish, using methods that would 
be condemned within a national parliament. In a recent instance the 
representatives of a number of European countries, including Bulgaria 
and Romania, sent a letter to the White House approving the US line 
in Iraq. These representatives apparently meet regularly in Washington 
where they are 'advised' by an American official who has worked in intel- 
ligence. It was he who wrote the letter on behalf of the states who were at 
the same time candidates for NATO, for which they have to be approved 

The appropriation of values 255 

by the US government. 13 The decision to offer support was made with- 
out any consultation of their own people, who would almost certainly 
have objected. The same is true of Prime Minister Blair of Britain who 
felt no obligation to consult the electorate on the war in Iraq, since he 
had decided his position was the right one, whatever others might think. 
That was also Bush's position. Moreover those who take an alternative 
line are not only condemned, that is to be expected. But sanctions of 
various kinds may be taken against them. It was intimated that if other 
nations did not take part in the war against Iraq, they would have no 
say in post-war decisions which were clearly to be made not by the UN 
but by the superpower and its allies. Russia, France, and China were to 
have no future access to Iraqi contracts or to its oil (as they had done 
under Saddam Hussein), whose disposition would be in the hands of the 
victors. 'Law' was the product of war. 

Such discriminatory measures hardly respect the legitimate right and 
freedom to choose between alternative courses of action, which is basic 
to democracy and to the rule of the people. Indeed we are left with the 
rule of force. On a more domestic level those measures did not await 
the end of the war. A discussion on the news programme CNN 14 raised 
the possibility that the US should give up drinking French wines (in favour 
of Australian, a country whose government was giving its support to the 
war in Iraq), and predicted also that the sales of Mercedes cars would also 
decline. Even the names of dissident countries were sometimes taboo: on 
some menus 'French fries' became 'freedom fries', freedom being asso- 
ciated with participation in the war. The dominant position of the US 
in the cinema, on TV, in the world media generally, ensured that its sit- 
uation was constantly explained in its own terms. There do seem to be 
arguments of a democratic kind in favour of restricting the ownership 
and control of mass media, to limiting the role of money (as well as of 
arms) in influencing the people's choice. But the world-wide electronic 
media can hardly be restrained in this way. Nevertheless democracy rests 
on the notion of effective 'freedom of choice'. Money and monopolies 
clearly affect that freedom when on an international level voting may 
be influenced by loans or gifts and nationally when candidates are cho- 
sen from those who can afford the publicity or the price of drinks to 
offer to the voters. In general the international situation differs substan- 
tially from the national; the democratic system is contextually applied. 
A former secretary of the United Nations recently remarked in an arti- 
cle entitled 'The United States against the rest of the World' that 'the 
most important argument can be summarized in a formula inspired by 

13 Herald Tribune 20/02/03. 14 Herald Tribune 20/02/03. 

256 Three institutions and values 

the philosopher Pascal. "Democracy within the United States; authori- 
tarianism outside". 13 At an international level, democratic powers do not 
respect democratic procedures. 

The notion that democracy only emerged as a feature of modern, 
indeed western, societies is a gross simplification as is the attribution 
of its origin to the Greek city-states. Obviously Greece provided a par- 
tial model. But many early political systems, including very simple ones, 
embodied consultative procedures designed to determine the will of the 
people. In a general sense the 'value' of democracy, though sometimes 
held in abeyance, was frequently, if not always, present in earlier societies 
and specifically emerged in the context of opposition to authoritarian 
rule. What the modern world did was to institutionalize a certain form of 
election (choice) - initially for certain political reasons because the people 
were required to contribute actively to national expenditure in the form 
of taxes. It was to raise that money that parliament had to be called. Gen- 
eral taxation was hardly possible without some form of representation, 
as the American colonies effectively proclaimed. The particular forms so 
lauded in the west are, however, not always the most effective to secure 
adequate representation; the promotion of the Westminster model did 
not prove a universal panacea even at a national level. Internationally, 
there is a long way to go before electoral procedures are accepted rather 
than imposed by force or by other sanctions. 

Individualism, equality, freedom 

Associated with democracy are three values which form a triad in Euro- 
pean thinking and are often proposed as the exclusively European causes - 
or effects - of exclusively European developments in the arts, the sciences, 
and the economy. They are constantly on call throughout the humani- 
ties, in literary criticism for example, in the discussion of the rise of the 
novel and of autobiography as the paradigmatic genre of individualism, 
to mention just a few instances. 16 Individualism has also been claimed by 
the west as contributing to the entrepreneurship deemed central to capi- 
talism. As we discuss in the next chapter, individualism involves a certain 
freedom of personal choice (as distinct from collective responsibilities), 
which comes to the fore in contemporary questions of marriage and the 
nuclear family, and is again held to be particularly European. Freedom 
of this kind is often equated with the irrelevance of family ties in the 
choice of partners. But total freedom from family ties is not what actors 
experience, for they soon create alternative bonds. Children may depart 

15 Unitd 22/04/03. 16 Watt 1957. 

The appropriation of values 257 

relatively early from their natal household, but shortly after they do so, 
they establish strong links with others, a lover, a spouse, and eventually 
with their own children; at the same time they maintain ties over distance 
(interrupted by visits and frequent communication by letters, telephone, 
and e-mail) with their parents and with their siblings. Indeed it has been 
suggested by Laslett and others that in Europe fission of this kind may 
even strengthen closer attachments within the conjugal family as distinct 
from wider ties of kinship. That view of stronger attachments in the west 
within the conjugal family does not appear to be altogether consistent 
with the notion of the ('free') isolated individual making his way against 
the world, in the manner of Robinson Crusoe or other mythical heroes of 
the continent, such as Faustus. The ideological inconsistency becomes 
totally apparent in the notion that our economy is created by individual 
entrepreneurs. For that is far from the reality. In fact, family firms still 
play a very important role even today. 17 

That triad of values, individualism, freedom, equality, is not confined 
to Europe. It has recently been pointed out 18 that equality and freedom 
together with love are fundamental features of the ethical teaching of 
Islam, as is a concern for the individual. Equality Yalman sees as a 'fun- 
damental aspect' of the 'culture of Islam'. Certainly it is 'translated' into 
practice in the notion of open access to opportunities for people and 
the absence of a religious group (a priesthood) with privileged access to 
divine truths. This 'value' does not mean there is no inequality among 
Islamic peoples. 'In practice, inferiority and superiority are as much a 
part of daily Islamic experience as any other.' 19 

Yalman draws the contrasts between a highly idealized formula relating 
equality and love in Islam on the one hand, and hierarchy and renunci- 
ation in India on the other. But ideology and practice are often very 
different. As mentioned above, Yalman recognizes that equality has not 
always been achieved by Islamic states and, on the other hand, he quotes a 
comment noting that even in the rigid caste societies of India, dominated 
by a supposedly permanent hierarchy, the presence of bhakti means that 
the ranking may be modified and those who have fallen from twice-born 
status may be brought to a higher condition. 20 Equally, love is a feature 
of Indian as well as of Muslim society and is not confined to one or the 
other; he refers to the great Hindu traditions of sexual love, for instance, 
of the gopis for Krishna, and he might well have mentioned love in the 
body of Sanskrit poetry. So that similarity constitutes a 'point of profound 
contact in Hindu and Muslim devotionalism', and he goes on to claim 

17 Goody 1996a: 192ff. 18 Yalman 2001. 

19 Yalman 2001: 271. 20 Hopkins 1966; Yalman 2001: 277. 

258 Three institutions and values 

that in the Hindu case, like equality, love is a minor theme of a great 
civilization, as we shall discuss in the next chapter. 21 How far removed 
this assessment is from the usual European prejudices about these soci- 
eties (and their views regarding equality and love) ! What Yalman shows 
is as it were a Hegelian interpenetration of opposites, the practice of both 
societies displaying features that run against not only the stereotypes of 
outsiders but to some extent their own dominant ideologies. 

So we need to modify the stark contrast regarding equality (and frater- 
nal love) in these ideologies by taking into account the similar features that 
accompany them in practice. Compared to Africa, which has experienced 
a different developmental trajectory involving less social differentiation, 
both the Islamic society of Turkey and the Hindu society of India are 
representative of the post-Bronze Age cultures of Eurasia all of which are 
heavily stratified, literate, and for the most part based on unequal access 
to valuable land and other resources, as well as upon military prowess. 
However, the inequalities in those forms of stratification may be qualified 
by written religious ideologies. Islam does something to loosen and even 
oppose the secular stratification; there is the encouragement of charity 
(an aspect of fraternal love) from the better-off, occasionally a revolt of 
the poor, even if no effective redistribution occurs. Indeed charity of this 
individual kind may be said to reinforce the status quo. In India the secular 
hierarchy is supported by the religious ideology, but not unambiguously 
since, rather than the political-military rulers, it is the literate priesthood 
who conducts the religious rites, who are considered to stand at the top 
of the hierarchy. The secular rulers follow. The same is broadly true in 
Islam, though they do not have a priesthood as such, only a group of men 
learned in the sacred text. And learning is said to be more important than 
political power. 22 

In India too the class divide is modified by charity, as in Islam, by 
acts of giving, as when in a Congress-dominated village in Gujarat, I saw 
the harijan, formerly the untouchables, queuing up to obtain the whey 
left-over from the yoghurt-making activities of the 'peasant' Patels. More 
significant however are those aspects of religion, bhakti and Krishna- 
worship, that display positive egalitarian characteristics. And there has 
always been some outright opposition to the hierarchy of others, especially 
in the long tradition of Indian atheistic thought which included Dalit 
(untouchable) resistance to the caste system where they found themselves 
at the bottom of the pile. That opposition was typified in Pune by the 
counter-activities in the nineteenth century of Mahatma Phule, a low- 
caste flower merchant, who founded a girls' primary school, and later by 

21 Yalman 2001: 277. 22 Berkey 1992: 4. 

The appropriation of values 259 

the work of Dr Ambekhar, leader of the harijan under Mahatma Gandhi, 
who drafted the Indian constitution to include the positive discrimination 
we have mentioned but eventually led his group away from Hinduism and 
into Buddhism. Both Buddhism and Jainism had grown out of Hinduism 
but rejected the caste system. That is why Ambedkhar could successfully 
lead the former untouchables back to Buddhism, to an Indian religion 
which had little following in that country and therefore fewer internal 
political implications. 

The notion of equality was certainly not confined to Europe but was 
present in Hindu society, even if not always prominent in Brahman reli- 
gious thought, just as the practice and to some extent the ideology of 
hierarchy existed in Islam. These contrary tendencies of equality and 
hierarchy are mirrors of each other within each society; the beliefs may 
display contrasting aspects, but considered in a wider frame both trends 
are present not only in both societies but in Christianity as well. How 
and why? Because these societies, being dependent upon advanced agri- 
culture and its commercial and artisanal concomitants, are heavily strat- 
ified from a socio-economic point of view as well as having political and 
religious-educational stratification in relation to the use of the written 
word and to the holy scriptures more generally. But such stratification is 
often seen as contrary to what are virtually pan-human notions of equality 
among humans (e.g. among siblings, among brothers and sisters) which 
run as a counter-current in hierarchical societies and are based on the 
idea of distributive justice. From the standpoint of the family, equality 
is associated with relations between siblings ('all men are brothers') or 
between partners, rather than between parents and children (prototyp- 
ically fathers and sons, as with Oedipus). 2j One set involves inequality, 
the other equality, and both are built into social relationships from the 
family outwards. Both involve love, one set fraternal or sororal as well as 
'sexual' love, which is between equals, a lateral relationship. The other 
relates to parental love and its complement, which is hierarchical, between 
unequals. The imposition of hierarchy by the father or parent is countered 
by claims to equality on behalf of the brother or sibling. These claims may 
dominate the lifestyles of a person or of a community, or they may consti- 
tute a distant point of reference that does little to prevent one continuing 
to act in a rapacious or consumerist manner. We are well acquainted with 
these contradictions in ideological and practical behaviour from our own 
daily lives, as when we decry the pollution that cars make to the environ- 
ment and jump into our Nissan to go down to the supermarket (which 
we decry as having taken over the small, personalized shops). 

23 See Mitchell 2003. 

260 Three institutions and values 

Like equality, the notion of freedom 24 was widespread in human soci- 
eties. It is a concept that depends upon context and is not confined to 
the west. The Englishman, Sir Adolphus Slade, who served as an officer 
under the Ottoman Navy in the 1820s, wrote: 'Hitherto the Osmanly 
has enjoyed by custom some of the dearest privileges of the freemen, for 
which Christian nations have so long struggled.' He paid a very limited 
land-tax, no tithes, needed no passport, encountered neither customs nor 
police . . . 'from the lowest origins he might aspire without presumption 
to the rank of pasha'. He compares this freedom, 'this capacity of realis- 
ing the wildest wishes', to the achievements of the French revolution. 23 
There are many practical significances in this situation. You could make a 
slave a Muslim, but you could not make a Muslim a slave. Equally a new 
convert, as for example an Albanian boy taken to Istanbul as a devirsne, 
could rise to the highest offices in the land, bar that of Sultan. 

Yalman explains how the notion of freedom is connected to that of 
equality. The 'high ideals of Islam', he notes, 

do turn around the principle that there are no privileged persons in Islam, or rather 
that a person's worth depends upon the morality of his/her intentions, behaviour 
and piety. This may lead to the gates of heaven, but even in the worldly kingdoms, 
all people, once converted to the belief of Islam - i.e., having 'surrendered' (teslim) 
to the will of God - must be given an equal chance to rise in society. Hence 
the promise of Islam, for instance, to Black Muslims in America and oppressed 
peoples elsewhere? 26 

As we have seen, while the major 'virtues' of individualism, equality, and 
freedom are often seen as basically European, as part of the continent's 
cultural heritage that enabled it to move forward to modernization before 
the rest of the world, this idea is built on shaky foundations. 'The freedom 
of subjects to pursue their understanding' has long been seen as a feature 
of modern capitalism. But, as Wallerstein points out, 27 the absence of 
constraints may mean the opposite, that is, 'the elimination of guaran- 
tees for reproduction', setting aside rights derived from heritage, leaving 
it uncertain how great the difference is between 'capitalism' and past sys- 
tems. 28 In different forms these attributes are found in other societies, not 
only advanced literate ones, although there the ideologies are inevitably 
more explicit. Nevertheless, ideologically Europeans try to appropriate 

But freedom is even more complex than described. Caroline Humphries has recently 
analysed Russian concepts of freedom in the post-Communist era as compared with the 
west. There are two concepts that can be used to translate the English word, slobude and 
valya. The first refers to the freedom to pursue political goals, the second to the freedom 
to pursue personal ones. 

25 Quoted in Yalman 2001: 271. 26 Yalman 2001: 271. 

27 Wallerstein 1999: 16. 28 Wallerstein 1999: 16-17. 

The appropriation of values 261 

for themselves the positive aspects of these notions, which also have their 
negative features, fraternity involving the strife between brothers, and 
love, the hatred that may follow the end of intimacy. The apparently 
straightforward virtues are in fact more complex than is often thought, 
especially that of fraternity (fraternal love) which, through charity, tends 
to modify the hierarchical inequalities of state systems. 

Charity and ambivalence regarding luxury 

One central aspect not so much of humanism, but of humanity or human 
values is the notion of charity. St Paul proclaimed that the great virtues 
were 'faith, hope and charity and the greatest of these is charity'. The 
Latin caritas has been translated both as charity and as love, love for one's 
fellow human beings; the sexual aspect of love I discuss in the following 
chapter. Charity is a virtue that was extended above all to one's fellow 
Christians and sometimes said to be uniquely associated with Christian- 
ity. But in fact all the major written religions solicited support and needed 
to attract funds for charitable purposes, for the maintenance of buildings 
of worship, as well as for the personnel required to staff the institution. 
So it was inevitable that they sought to acquire wealth, especially from 
the richer members of society. If an individual had an excess of wealth, 
it should be given for God's work (or for the Buddha or other agency). 
At the same time, poverty was in principle praiseworthy. The rich man 
had difficulties entering the kingdom of Heaven (unless he gave away his 
goods) . The poor man had far fewer problems; he or she was a worthy 
recipient of charity, of gifts made ultimately by the rich but mediated by 
the church. So charity was never a purely Christian virtue. It is found in 
equal measure among Muslims, among Hindus, among Parsis, Jains, and 
Buddhists. For Muslims, charity was a sacred duty, one of the five pillars 
of Wisdom. In West Africa, personal charity was exercised every Friday 
when saddaqa was given to the poor or to the worthy. In Mediterranean 
lands, where there was greater 'class' differentiation and a different system 
of land holding, more substantial charitable gifts (waqf) were donated 
either to support a mosque and its associated institutions, a hospital, a 
caravanserai, a market, a madrasa (college) or else to a family trust to aid 
those in need. Similar provisions were made in all other world (written) 
religions where giving to a beggar or to a monk was a mark of merit. 
Building almshouses and supplying food as well as shelter for the poor 
were important gifts an individual could make, possibly cancelling out 
earlier misdeeds. 

In this way, both the poor and the church were provided for. Indeed in 
Christianity poverty was claimed to be a holy state in itself. That is not 

262 Three institutions and values 

to say that in these cultures there was no striving for riches, for luxury. 
Indeed in some self-justifying accounts, the rich are seen as necessary to 
help support the poor, just as rich nations are necessary to support the less 
well-off. But the priesthood, the princes of the church, were as engaged 
in luxury behaviour and in acquiring luxury objects as anyone else. How- 
ever, there was always a degree of ambivalence about the very existence 
of such luxury, with not only religious doctrines but philosophers like 
Mencius too, proclaiming that luxury was unnecessary to human life as 
well as being harmful and in some cases positively evil. Yet it was cer- 
tainly the aim of the powerful, whether in ecclesiastical or in lay society, 
whether merchant, farmer, or professional, to accumulate wealth in order 
to be able to behave in a special way. The two trends were therefore at 
odds, producing ambivalence in many, which was resolved for some by 
the practice of asceticism, by the negation and even destruction of luxu- 
rious objects, as in the notable case of St Francis of Assisi. In his youth 
Francis was devoted to gaiety, to chivalry, to ostentatious prodigality. Ill- 
ness turned his attention to another dimension of life. Devoting himself 
to poverty, he took a vow never to refuse alms to a beggar. However, 
he abandoned his inheritance and wore only a single brown tunic of 
coarse woollen cloth, tied with a hempen cord. The saint subsequently 
founded the Franciscan order which, like others, was based on the three 
vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Of these, poverty was the most 
important (inviting charity) and the order repudiated all idea of owning 

The widespread ambivalence regarding luxury and riches was rarely 
manifested in such an extreme form. But the very nature of charity 
depends, to a considerable extent, on the realization that what is small 
change to the better-off, living in comparative luxury, is an essential to 
the poor. Both the heightened consumption that luxury implies and on 
the other hand its absence, indeed poverty, are aspects of differentia- 
tion in the economy, the emergence of the rich and poor, that occurred 
in so marked a manner with the Bronze Age, when the relative eco- 
nomic 'egalitarianism' of earlier societies was shattered by the new pro- 
ductive techniques that enabled one man with a plough to produce so 
much more than another, to make one man richer, another poorer. 29 In 
other words both charity and an ambivalence towards luxury, as well 
as poverty and riches, were to a large extent products of the Bronze 
Age changes and were mainly lacking in the hoe agricultural societies 

29 I do not mean to suggest that there was no poverty in other types of society, but it was 
of a different order. 

The appropriation of values 263 

of Africa, not altogether absent but less explicitly subjects of ideological 

While luxury behaviour like charity is an aspect of all stratified soci- 
eties, it is also a dynamic one. It changes over time for both external and 
internal reasons. By external I refer to the market forces and to produc- 
tive techniques, that, for instance, turned sugar from being a luxury into 
an item of mass consumption. Since the upper elements in society define 
themselves by means of luxuries, they have now to seek new items to serve 
as markers of difference, items which others cannot acquire because of 
their rarity or expense. In The Structures of Everyday Life, Braudel observes 
that we always need to distinguish the condition of the minority, 'the 
privileged, whom we may regard as living in luxury', from that of the 
majority. 30 However, the distinguishing features are frequently changing. 
'Sugar was, for example, a luxury before the sixteenth century; paper 
was still a luxury in the closing years of the seventeenth, so were alcohol 
and the first "aperitifs" at the time of Catherine of Medici, or the swans- 
down beds and silver cups of the Russian boyars before Peter the Great.' 
Oranges were a luxury in England in the Stuart period and later, being 
especially prized at Christmas time. All that changed as the luxuries of 
the better-off became universal necessities, and production for the elite 
moved to mass consumption. 

However, changes in luxury goods may also occur internally as the 
result of fashion. Braudel saw fashion as making its appearance in Europe 
about 1350 with the move to short, light tunics although it only really 
became powerful around 1700 when fashion 'began to influence every- 
thing'. 31 But only among the upper class; villagers continued in their 
old unchanging ways, which was the pattern, according to him, of the 
civilizations in the east. 

That theme of change is a favourite of some Eurocentric historians 
who see the west as 'inventing invention'. 32 That statement is of course 
nonsense, as we see from Needham's great work on China discussed 
in chapter 5. So too is Braudel's more nuanced claim. The problem of 
change, not only in luxury behaviour but more generally, is intrinsic to 
western perceptions of eastern societies. Capitalism requires change; tra- 
dition stasis. However, all societies change at different speeds in different 
contexts. I have argued that in earlier religious systems, many cults tend to 
display a built-in obsolescence, being addressed to the God that Failed. 33 
Eventually they are seen not to work, so that the search for new solutions 

30 Braudel 1981 [1979]: 183. 31 Braudel 1981: 317. 
32 Landes 1999; Goody 2004. 33 Goody 1957. 

264 Three institutions and values 

to human difficulties was an essential feature of those societies. A char- 
acteristic result is the turn-over of shrines; the old are set aside as failing 
to deliver, new ones are born. Perhaps this process should be considered 
as outside the realm of fashion, also a matter of change but one that 
exists at a more trivial level. But that level too one finds in oral cultures 
like that of the LoDagaa of northern Ghana. Songs and tunes for the 
xylophone change frequently even in rituals, so too, at least at present, 
do the dances and the cotton dresses women wear to perform them. 
Such behaviour is very close to fashion, especially in the use of imported 

The role of fashion and luxury in promoting capitalism was a theme of 
the German economist Sombart among others, as we saw in chapter 7. 
This role was not unique to Europe but widely promoted by the increased 
economic activity of post-Bronze-Age societies. The rapidity of change 
increased over time. Just as the increase in the volume of trade and of 
commerce and its products has been an important feature of modern 
life, so too has the increase in shifting fashion. Braudel, we have seen, 
puts the beginning of that increase around 1700. That date refers to the 
growth of fashion at the French court under Louis XIV (1638-1715). 
Louis insisted that his nobles reside at Versailles for at least part of the 
year and it was in that context of their leisured existence that regular 
changes of fashion in dress were established. The French court started to 
invite silk-manufacturers from the southern town of Lyon to visit every 
six months to discuss future designs. It was not the appearance of change, 
of new fashion, that was remarkable but the way that rapid change was 
regularly established; the effects this had on industrialized production 
were remarkable. In France the speed of change in the design of silk 
clothing for the aristocracy was so fast that it led to the demise of the 
manufacture of silk in the Italian town of Bologna, up to then the great 
producer of silk cloth, in the eighteenth century; the Italian industry could 
not keep up. 34 That process rivalled, and set the pattern for, today's 
annual fashion shows in Paris, Milan, New York, London, and other 
capitals, shows that are market places for the costumes of the rich (women 
in this case) but which also set the terms for production for the masses 
who with modern socio-economic developments have now been drawn 
in to the frequent dictates of 'la mode', although on a less luxurious 

There was certainly an increase in the speed of turn-over of fashion 
and luxury goods in Europe, as well as in the number of participants, 
along with the development of industrial production and a mass consumer 

34 Poni 2001a and b. 

The appropriation of values 265 

market. That shift was not due to some inherent willingness to change 
that distinguished Europe, to some different 'mentality', but rather to 
the nature of the market and the productive processes. So that with 
regard to the claim that fashion was uniquely European, Braudel was 
quite wrong. Falsifying his notion of changing and unchanging societies, 
Elvin records that in China fashion in women's clothing was known as a 
'trend of the times', found in Shanghai in the later seventeenth century. 35 
I suspect that, at a lower pace, we could trace it earlier and probably 

Fashion in clothing was initially one way for the rich to maintain their 
explicit status markers, as was luxury more generally. As in many other 
post-Bronze-Age societies, clothing was often dictated by class; in some 
parts there were sumptuary laws that limited certain products to certain 
groups in the hierarchy, in others differences were of a more informal 
kind. Silk for example was forbidden to the citizens of Paris by Henry 
IV. 36 But with the development of manufacture and of exchange both 
national and international, the growth in numbers and prestige of those 
involved, the bourgeoisie, made it increasingly difficult to maintain these 
restrictions, in Europe and elsewhere. The lower made every effort to 
adopt the behaviour of the upper, especially when the acquisition of riches 
threatened existing status categories. Interestingly, sumptuary laws were 
eased in China at approximately the same time as in Europe when in 
both regions the rising bourgeoisie could no longer be held back, parallel 
changes which were no doubt the result of external trade and internal 
'evolution'. After that time, fashion and 'taste' rather than law took over 
the role of distinguishing the elite and the whole process became more 
flexible but more complex. Nevertheless, the virtue of giving charity (to 
the poor), the ambivalence about luxury (for the rich), the use of clothing 
for distinguishing status and of laws to protect that, the role of fashion, 
while these vary, they are not unique to one culture in Eurasia but are 
found in all the major urbanized societies. 

In conclusion, many Europeans see themselves as being heirs to the 
humanism of the Enlightenment, as well as to the French, American, 
and even English Revolutions, which supposedly led to new societies, to 
different ways of life. One aspect of this new, enlightened life was modern 
democracy. Europe also laid claim to values which, seen as invented by 
that continent at a rhetorical (and in particular at a textual) level, were 
considered as of universal applicability, but in practice are treated contex- 
tually and contingently. The gap between these stated goals (values) and 
actual practice can be very great; while the east are largely seen as lacking 

35 Elvin 2004: xi. 36 Braudel 1981: 311. 

266 Three institutions and values 

them altogether. In fact, human values, and in that sense humanism, are 
found throughout human societies, not always in the same form but often 
recognizably comparable. Certainly the triad of individualism, equality, 
and freedom is not to be uniquely associated with modern democracy 
nor with the modern west; like charity they are found distributed much 
more widely. 

10 Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 

Not only have certain much prized institutions and values been claimed 
by Europe as unique to itself, but the same has happened even with some 
emotions, particularly that of love. 1 Some forms of love, sometimes the 
idea of love itself, have been seen as a purely western phenomenon. This 
idea is especially strong among many medieval historians, such as Duby, 
who have created a tradition which claims that 'romantic love' had its birth 
in the troubadour society of twelfth-century Europe. Modern historians 
of the family have used the notion of the uniqueness of love relationships 
to account for certain features of domestic life connected with the demo- 
graphic transition from larger to smaller families and with the role of the 
conjugal family in the growth of capitalism. Some sociologists have seen 
it as a key to modernization, especially the modernization of the affec- 
tual life. Others more generally have considered it to be linked to their 
religion - an attribute of Christianity and of Christian charity ('love thy 
neighbour') where love is interpreted as fraternal love. It has been a gen- 
eral assumption of many European scholars, including psychologists like 
Person who saw the idea as spreading throughout western culture with the 
'increasing emphasis on individuality as a primary value'. 2 Love, roman- 
tic love, is frequently believed to go hand in hand with individualism, 
with freedom (of choice of partner, as distinct from arranged marriage), 
and with modernization in general. I am not concerned primarily with 
why Europeans have made this ethnocentric claim. 3 But I am critical of 
the claim's validity. 

In this chapter I have followed Europeans (especially Hollywood) in 
treating romantic love as something which differs from love in general 

This chapter is dependent upon the chapters I have written for collections made by 
Louisa Passerini, notably 'Love, lust and literacy', reprinted in Food and Love Q. Goody), 
1998, and 'Love and religion: comparative comments', to appear in L. Passerini (ed.) 
forthcoming, Berghan Books, Oxford. In addition there are references to the subject in 
Islam in Europe, Polity Press, 2003, as well as in a paper I wrote for C. Trillo San Jose 
(ed.), Mujeres, familia y linaje en la edad media, 2004. 
Person 1991: 386. 3 Passerini 1999. 


268 Three institutions and values 

and which is seen very much as something the west alone has. I do not 
think this proposition is correct, for reasons that will become clear, nor 
do I think that 'romantic' love is to be distinguished, except in detail, 
from love more generally. In other words it is by and large an invention 
of the west to distinguish the cultures of that continent from the rest of 
the world. 

Let us begin with the widespread proposal that, in writing about courtly 
love, the troubadours of the twelfth century were the first to introduce 
the idea and practice of romantic love. This assumption was central, for 
example, to the historian de Rougemont's study of love in Europe. 4 Love 
is seen in similar developmental terms by the sociologist Norbert Elias. 
What 'we call "love"', 'that transformation of pleasure, that shade of feel- 
ing, that sublimation and refinement of the affects comes into being, 
he claims, in the feudal society of the troubadours and is expressed in 
'lyric poetry'. He sees those texts, indeed the whole genre, as represent- 
ing 'genuine feelings' and, in the words of the medievalist C. S. Lewis, 
as an indicator of a 'new state of affairs'. 6 That we find here a poetic 
genre new to Christian Europe, there can be little doubt. But there is no 
evidence of new feelings in general, unless we mean by that new forms 
of expressing those feelings; even here the newness of expression applies 
only to Christian Europe, not to an overall change in man's conscious- 
ness. As we will see, there were many expressions of love, even romantic 
love, outside Europe. The claim that it arose for the first time in feudal 
Europe is quite unsustainable. ' 

A similar theme was recently taken up by the distinguished medieval 
historian, Georges Duby. He too thought that 'twelfth-century Europe 
discovered love'. 8 But he does not see the troubadours of Aquitaine as 
being the only agents. Songs of the same kind were sung in Paris, by 
Abelard, for example, who acts 'as a troubadour'. 9 Such activity also 
appeared at the Anglo-Norman courts under the Plantagenet Henry II 
which constituted 'the most productive workshops of literacy creation' 
and gave birth to the legend of Tristan and Isolde. 10 Changes in the ori- 
entation of love he regards as related to the 'feminization of Christianity' 
and to the new role of the younger sons of knights who had benefited 
from the increasing wealth of that period. 

The kind of love (la fin a" amor) expressed in these troubadour poems 
involves a measure of absence and distance, often social distance as 

4 de Rougemont 1956. 5 Elias 1982: 328. 
6 Lewis 1936: 11. 7 See Goody 1998. 

8 Duby's writings on love include Que sait-on de V amour en France en Xlle siecle? (1988) and 
A propos de V amour que Von dit courtois (1988). 

9 Duby 1996: 61, 66. 10 Duby 1996: 73, 68. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 269 

between a courtier and the wife of his lord. Not only men but women 
too (troubaritz) composed love poems; one of the most famous of these 
women poets was Na Castelosa from the Auvergne, wife of Turc de Mey- 
onne, who wrote addressing one Armand of Breon. The opening of one 
of her poems began (in French translation): 

Vouz avez laisse passer un bien long temps 
Depuis que vous m 'avez quitte. 
You have let a long time pass 
Since you left me. 

The loved one has so often departed, or is unobtainable, that this distance, 
physical or social, is seen as a general characteristic of courtly love. 

However, this form of love poetry is hardly unique in sentiment, though 
perhaps in specifics. The ancient historian, Keith Hopkins, found love 
poems in Ancient Egypt written between sister and brother, where they 
were permitted partners. : : In China as early as the ninth to seventh cen- 
turies bce we find love poetry anthologized in The Book of Songs. In the 
middle of the sixth century a court poet, Hsu Ling, put together a whole 
collection of love poems which he called New Songs from a Jade Terrace, 
consisting largely of poetry belonging to the aristocratic court tradition 
of southern China. The 'Palace Style Poetry' took on a standardized 
rhetorical form that bristled with conventions. One of those was that 'the 
woman's lover must be absent from the love scenario'. 12 As we will dis- 
cuss later, distance was intrinsic to the whole nature of both letter-writing 
and love poetry. In Japan too, during the Heian period (794-1185 ce), 
the country was known to the Chinese as the 'court of queens', and 
their women dominated the literary scene. In courting a future spouse 
for an aristocratic family, the young man sent love poems to the girl and 
she replied in kind. Once married, the women often passed their time 
writing poetry and engaging in competitions, one of which involved the 
hanging of poems on paper strips at the Spring Cherry Blossom Festi- 
val, an act that had both religious and secular implications. 13 The art of 
letter-writing was the most important for gallantry and for 'courtoisie'. 14 
Love-letters were especially valued; unlike the situation in the Christian 
west (at least in a religious context), love was not a sin but a celebra- 
tion. Books of sexual education (literally, images of different positions) 
were often written by monks and hidden in the trousseaux of young 
girls. However, in a later period when the military virtues were much 
prized, love and sex were treated in a more puritanical fashion. That 

11 Hopkins 1980. 12 Birrell 1995: 8. 

13 See La Culture des Fleurs French edition, Le Seuil, 1994, p. 496. 

14 Beurdeley 1973:14. 

270 Three institutions and values 

alternation between puritanism and celebration in the public attitudes 
to love was associated not only with the military but with religion too. 
Indeed one might view the troubadour period as being a European mani- 
festation of just such a process, following the restraint enjoined by earlier 

China and Japan are not the only extra-European cultures which have 
known and cultivated love poetry; we find the literary expression of love 
in the Hebrew Bible in the Song of songs (which undoubtedly exerted 
an influence upon Christian Europe, where it was, however, often inter- 
preted allegorically, as in other such traditions, as if the genre was unwor- 
thy of serious attention in its literal form) and also in a considerable 
body of ancient Sanskritic poetry in India. 13 A more immediate model 
for the poetry of the troubadours, and well known in twelfth century 
Europe, lay in the works of Ovid, who lived in Rome at the time of the 
Emperor Augustus. For him, however, love is said to be 'frankly sen- 
sual' and extramarital; in Rougemont's view 'there is little or no trace 
of the romantic affection of later times'. 16 However, that author neglects 
the various similarities. In both traditions love was often extra-marital; 
moreover among the troubadours there was certainly an undercurrent of 
sexuality, just as in Ovid there is more than a trace of romance. 

In a comprehensive study of the medieval Latin love lyric and the rise 

of the European form (1965), Dronke concludes, contrary to Lewis, that 

there was no 'new feeling' in the twelfth century, 

(i) 'that "the new feeling" of amour courtois is at least as old as Egypt 

of the second millennium B.C., and might indeed occur at any time 

or place: that it is, as Professor Marrou suspected, 'un secteur du 

coeur, un des aspects eternels de l'homme'; 

(ii) that the feeling of amour courtois is not confined to courtly or chivalric 

society, but is reflected in even the earliest recorded popular verse of 

Europe (which almost certainly had a long oral tradition behind it); 

(iii) that researches into European courtly poetry should therefore be 

concerned with the variety of sophisticated and learned development 

of courtois themes, not with seeking specific origins for the themes 

themselves. For if the mirage of the sudden new feeling is done 

away with, the particular problems of literary history undoubtedly 

remain.' 17 

I would agree wholeheartedly with Dronke that we are dealing with 'a 

mirage' seen in European terms, though I would emphasize the role that 

15 Brough 1968. 16 Parry 1960: 4. 

17 Dronke 1965 I: ix. The reference to Marrou is RMAL, iii (1947), 189. The phrase 'the 
new feeling' is used by C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, p. 12. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 271 

this mirage has played in world history. At the same time I would have 
my doubts about oral societies that I have expressed elsewhere; 18 the 
love-lyric seems almost to require written composition. 

But while Latin poetry may have served as a precedent for the 
troubadours of Languedoc, specific sources and influences were closer 
at hand in the shape of the strong Islamic tradition of love poetry which 
was to be found in Arabic-speaking Spain and Sicily. The most plausi- 
ble explanation for the difference between Ovid and later work in this 
field was 'that the troubadours were influenced by the culture of Mus- 
lim Spain'. 19 During the period of the 'petty courts' (taifas), before the 
advent in 1086 of the puritanical Almoravids who were Berbers from 
Africa, Muslims and Christians in Andalusia lived side by side practically 
on an equal footing. The Muslim courts of Andalusia were part of the 
same tradition as those of the rest of Spain which were also important 
centres for the writing and recitation of love poetry. Representative of this 
tradition was the well-known poet, Ibn Hazm, who wrote The Ring of the 
Dove (1022), a poem about the art of love (sometimes interpreted alle- 
gorically) . There was of course much love poetry written throughout the 
Muslim world, influencing even peripheral areas such as Somalia in the 
Horn of Africa. But in southern Spain the tradition was especially strong 
not only among men but among women too. One of the most prominent 
of the latter was Wallada, a Caliph's daughter, who held a literary salon 
at Cordoba. There were other females too who wrote poetry displaying 
'a surprising freedom in their expression and fulfilment in their feelings 
of love'. 20 In Andalucia even some Jewish women were moved to write 
love poetry in the same mode. 

Interaction with Christian states was easy and frequent and the poets 
themselves were often the mediums of communication. 'A set of wander- 
ing poets came into existence, who passed from one court to another', 21 
much as developed a century later in France. In Sicily poets from the 
north used to frequent the Norman court of Roger II and then that 
of Frederick II (1194-1256) at Palermo, which was strongly oriented 
towards Arabic culture, in order to learn about local artistic activities. 22 
The members of the Sicilian school used their vernacular rather than 
Provencal for the language of love poetry and are credited with the inven- 
tion of two major poetic forms in Italy, the canzone and the sonnet. 

In fact Muslim and Jewish women participated in activities which Euro- 
pean tradition seems to have regarded as incompatible with the culture 
of gender inequality (which would make them incapable of experiencing 

18 Goody 1998: 119. 19 Parry 1960:1. 20 Viguera 1994: 709. 
21 Parry 1960: 8. 22 Asin 1926. 

272 Three institutions and values 

romantic love, except perhaps in a religious context) . As well the unde- 
niable influence of Muslim Europe upon its Christian neighbours poses 
a serious threat to the idea that romantic love was somehow sponta- 
neously invented in the knightly courts of Europe. In order to rescue 
an indigenous European origin for love (along with other components 
of what are seen as 'modern' family life), some scholars have implied 
that the prominent role of women in Andalucia drew its strength from 
the older roots of the country, from the population (Visigothic, Iberic) 
that had been in place before the Muslim invasions. A similar view has 
been taken of other features of Andalucian family life and was particularly 
popular during the Fascist period in Spain when there was a tendency to 
downplay the Islamic contribution to its social life as well as to Europe 
more generally. That tendency was counteracted by Guichard's pioneer- 
ing contribution to the history of the area in his book, Structures sociales 
'orientates' et 'occidentales' 23 and by the subsequent research of Spanish 
scholars in Andalucia. But it is also the case that on a wider canvas there 
has been a new insight into the position of women under Islam. West- 
erners are today often overwhelmed by the images of women wearing the 
veil, by the knowledge that marriage is polygynous and that schooling for 
females has not always been encouraged. These views persist in popular 
consciousness, political discourse, and even academic argument despite 
the fact that recent research opens more nuanced perspectives upon these 
matters, and reveal a deeper resemblance between European and Muslim 
attitudes and practices in the Mediterranean than is often allowed for. In 
the Mediterranean region the use of the veil depends upon social status, 
as it did in Renaissance Italy or in Victorian Europe. Apart from princely 
harems, plural marriage is in fact confined to a small minority of unions 
at any one time, less than 5 per cent, where it usually occurs in special 
circumstances, for example, to provide an heir. In this polygyny has its 
resemblances to the kind of serial marriage in which Henry VIII notably 
engaged, save that the non-favoured wife is not dismissed (divorced). 
Other practices akin to polygyny such as concubinage and extra-marital 
liaisons are common among European populations. In any case polygyny 
certainly does not prevent the development of personal and individualized 
sentiments, including love. As we see from the story of Jacob's marriage, 
as well as a senior wife there is always a 'favourite' ('Sarah') to whom 
the husband may be romantically attached. As for education, Qur'anic 
schools (for males) were not the only way of becoming educated; tutors, 
sometimes from within the family, gave private lessons to women. But the 
exclusion of women from school did influence the life choices of many 

23 Guichard 1997. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 273 

in Islam, as it did until recently in Judaism and for many in Christian 
Europe. 24 

As this discussion shows, the argument over the origin of troubadour 
poetry ran parallel to a more general dispute over the nature of Andalu- 
cian and Islamic society. Is the position of women (which affects their 
participation in love relationships) to be attributed to European roots, or 
instead to Muslim outsiders? Under Islam, women have generally been 
free to come to markets, both as buyers and sellers. In Turkey, they often 
appeared in law courts. From Ghana and elsewhere they undertook the 
arduous pilgrimage to Mecca. As I have remarked, Guichard suggests that 
we need to apply a class analysis to the situation. Women in upper groups 
were often restricted whereas women in the entertainment business were 
very free. These latter were singers, dancers, musicians, poets, who were 
sometimes subject to gift-exchange between courts, even between Mus- 
lim and Christian rulers. That exchange seems to illustrate the structural 
similarities in the two traditions as well as the channels for the communi- 
cation of ideas about poetry and love. Indeed the boundaries between the 
courts and territories of different religious persuasions were often quite 

It is this fact that has recently led some scholars to consider more 
profoundly the question of Muslim influence on troubadour poetry. It 
has been argued that the themes are similar in many respects as are the 
metrical forms. We have seen that poets travelled from one region to 
another, often under a kind of informal protection. 25 If so, the likelihood 
of what was for western Europe an innovative form of literature having 
been stimulated by contact with Islam seems high. On the levels both 
of prosody and content it has been said that 'there are no precursors of 
troubadour lyrics in the west but convincing analogues in theme, imagery, 
and verse form occur earlier with Hispanic-Arab poetry'. 26 In his work 
on European-Arab relations in the Middle Ages, the historian Daniel 
comments that: 

On the whole, it seems undeniable that courtly poetry in Arabic, often trivial, 
yet ranged much more widely in theme and treatment than troubadour verse. If 
the latter had not a special position in European literary history, it might be well 
regarded as no more than a provincial and decadent offshoot of the court poets 
of Spain ... If, however, European concepts of courtly love derive from the petty 
courts of the taifas [which appeared when the Caliphate collapsed in 1031], the 

24 Although Muslim women were excluded from formal instruction in most madrasas, 
they nevertheless sometimes received a religious education, as Berkey discusses (1992: 

25 Asin 1926. 26 Nykl 1946. 

274 Three institutions and values 

whole romantic tradition in European literature owes an almost disproportionate 
debt to eleventh-century Spain. 2, 

Even Nelli, the French historian of the troubadours and of the Cathars, 
sees the romantic tradition, the refraining from intimate sexual acts, and 
the man's subordination to the lady as deriving partly from Arabian 
sources as well as from Byzantium and elsewhere. 'All Nelli's possibil- 
ities', remarks Daniel, 'suggest the ambiguity or multiplicity of the origin 
of European romanticism.' How different that is from the conclusions of 
the influential English literary medievalist, C. S. Lewis, who wrote of the 
troubadours that they 

in the eleventh century, discovered or invented, or were the first to express, that 
romantic species of passion which English poets were still writing about in the 
nineteenth . . . and they erected impassable barriers between us and the classical 
past or the Oriental present. Compared with this revolution the Renaissance is a 
mere ripple on the surface of literature. 28 

The idea that it was the troubadours who, for the first time, made love 'not 
a sin but a virtue' 29 may be correct for medieval Europe; it is certainly 
unsustainable from a world perspective and illustrates the narrowness 
of a literary viewpoint confined to western literature. One interesting 
element, noted by Roux, is that Provencal poetry not only elaborated on 
the physical beauty of women in a theocratic age but, for the first time in 
Europe, excluded any reference either to salvation or to the supernatural 
and the marvellous, 30 bringing to birth a new humanism, by which he 
refers to a secular approach to life and which he sees as integrating the 
feudal ethic with 'relationships of love'. As we have argued, under Islam 
too people experienced similar periods, in Europe and elsewhere. So too 
did other major traditions. The secular, in love as in other matters, was 
no monopoly of Europe, though it was true that the Renaissance saw its 
extension into many spheres. But in any case the exclusion of religious 
and supernatural reference among the troubadours argues in favour of 
the influence of poets and scholars coming from a different tradition who 
knew what they had to exclude. Such influence is not surprising, given 
the fact that Provencal was linguistically close to the Catalan of northern 
Spain and that the Cathars, for example, thought nothing of crossing that 
frontier, their communities existing in Spain as well as in 'France'. 31 

It may be that in Christian Europe the expansion of love had to take 
place in a secular context, outside the religious sphere, because of the 
restraints that the latter imposed. That was not everywhere the case; 

27 Daniel 1975: 105-6. 28 Lewis 1936: 4. 29 Roux 2004: 166. 
30 Roux 2004: 166-7. 31 Weis 2001. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 275 

humanism in the secular sense was not a prerequisite for the development 
or expression of feelings of love. The subject was of wide interest in the 
Muslim world both in secular and in religious contexts. The emphasis 
on the latter was especially marked in Sufism. One Sufi master writes, 'I 
am neither Christian, Jew nor Muslim . . . love is my religion'. 32 In fact 
secular and religious love were very much intertwined. In an interesting 
contribution, which I take up in detail because of its links with previous 
chapters, the anthropologist, Yalman, writes: 

The interest in love as a social doctrine can be said to arise with the mystic 
tarikats very early in Islam. There is much talk of the heart: love in this sense is a 
dangerous, even subversive, doctrine. Thus are the tarikats regarded to this day 
in many places. The love of men for God, and for each other, has a Dionysian 
quality difficult for authorities to control. Such irrepressible and all-consuming 
love is expressed in highly emotive rituals - the passion plays of the Shi'a, or the 
ritual chanting (dhikr) of the various dervish orders, or the sema (whirling ritual) 
of the Mevlevis, and, in all cases, it is reported that the effect of the communal 
ritual is the submerging of the individual in an 'ocean of love' in his group. The 
degree to which the Middle East, at least, was susceptible to such ideas can 
be understood from the fact that Divine love (tasavvuj) is the largest and most 
persistent subject in the poetry and music of the Ottoman, Persian, and indeed 
Mughal Empires. The stream ran deep and wide for many centuries. It is in 
full flood still. The entire and vast corpus of major poets such as Yunus Emre 
and Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, Sadi, Hafiz, and many others is about Divine 
love. Behind the divine spirituality one senses the powerful imagery of love as 
a metaphor for human relations. Again, the insistence is on communal mystic 
experience. Individual mystic experience and ecstasy is said to belong properly 
to Christians. 

The metaphor of love, the love of men for God and for each other, has certain 
political implications. It denies, of course, the machine-like quality that well-run 
societies sometimes come to exhibit. Love as a consuming passion would set aside 
formalities and would undermine social barriers. It would erode the privileges of 
those small, closed groups that often run the important institutions of society, and 
would insist that hierarchical structures, built up with such care and dependent 
upon people keeping their places and doing their duties, be brought down. It 
would insist that men be equal to each other, that they dissolve the barriers 
separating them and unite with one another in a sense of community and identity 
and become one with each other and with God. 33 

A most remarkable example of the ecstasy of love, associating the divine 
and the earthly, was the homosexual relationship of the great poet Rumi 
for the wandering Shems. But a similar association, in this case hetero- 
sexual, occurs in the very influential work of the Andalucian Sufi poet, 
Ibn Arabi (ce 1165, Murcia-1240, Damascus). He was studying the 

32 Zafrani 1986: 159. 33 Yalman 2001: 272. 

276 Three institutions and values 

prophetic tradition in Mecca with Ibn Rustan of Isfahan when he met 
the latter's virginal daughter, Nizam; she was 'a slim maiden with a capti- 
vating look, who filled our meetings with grace ... If it were not for such 
souls, prone to wicked thoughts and intentions, I could describe in detail 
all the virtues God has given her, comparable to a fertile orchard.' His 
work on 'The Interpretation of Desires' is dedicated to Nizam (Harmony) 
and he later explains that all the expressions used in his verse (expres- 
sions appropriate to love poetry) allude to her and at the same time to a 
spiritual reality. 34 The relationship has been compared to that between 
Dante and Beatrice; indeed a claim has been made for his direct influence 
on the Florentine poet. While the association of secular and divine love 
is particularly strong in Islam, it also existed in Christianity; nevertheless 
in Islam one finds a separation in certain forms of poetry and in the art 
of the Mughal and other courts, but without any absolute distinction. 

As we know from Caroline Bynum's studies of medieval women mys- 
tics, 33 sometimes the two aspects of love, the spiritual and the sen- 
sual, become very much intertwined. The thirteenth-century mystic, 
Hadewijch, wrote of her union with Christ, 'after that he came himself 
to me, took me entirely in his arms and pressed me to him; and all my 
members felt his in full felicity . . .' 36 This concern with the flesh is linked 
to the idea that Christ had a human as well as a divine nature, the invisible 
God made visible as embodied in the doctrine of incarnation. As in other 
major religions, in Christianity the boundary between the earthly love of 
man/woman and the spiritual love of God (and God for mankind) is often 
blurred. The same word is used for both emotions, and romantic love, as 
in the Song of songs or in The ring of the dove, may be given an allegorical, 
spiritual significance since love is often seen as an intrinsic part of a com- 
plex of religious ideas and practices. The love of God (given and received), 
the love of man, the love of women, all are drawn together by the use of 
this one word, which implies a common element but a variety of forms. 
The Hebrew Bible also uses the same word for the love of God, of fellow 
men or of fellow women. Hence the rabbis could interpret the appar- 
ently erotic Song of songs as the love of God for Israel, an interpretation 
that Christians later transfer into the love of Christ for his people. That 
book was only included in the canon because rabbi Aqivah (first century 
CE) decided to read it allegorically; there is nothing in the text itself to 
suggest such an interpretation. 3 ' The first three chapters of Hosea show 

34 See V. Cantarino 1977, R. Nicholson 1921, IbnArabi 1996. 

35 Bynum 1987. 36 Hart, quoted J. Soskice 1996: 38. 

37 I am grateful to Jessica Bloom for this comment, to Andrew Macintosh, and to the 
writings of Prof. N. O. Yalman. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 277 

the same identification, some later Protestants would say confusion. How- 
ever there does seem to be a difference in Hebrew between love ( 'ahebh) 
and desire (shawq) . When God curses Eve, he says that her 'desire' (shawq) 
shall be for Adam, not that she shall 'love' ('ahebh) him. 

This identification of love for a woman and for one's country or for 
one's God was common in the Old Testament, and continued later. In 
the writing of the Jew, Ibn Gabirol (c.1021-c.1057), much influenced by 
Islamic models, the love poetry also contains an element of cosmic love, 
of the privileged relation between Israel and her God. Zafrani writes of 
'compositions du reste ambigues, qu'elles soient liturgiques ou profanes, 
dont on ne peut dire s'il s'agit d'amour mystique, ou de la relation avec un 
etre plus proche, le disciple ou l'ami' ('ambiguous compositions, whether 
liturgical or profane, of which one cannot say if they refer to mystical love, 
or to the relation to someone nearer, the disciple or the friend'). j8 Note 
that while Arab poetry was often profane, even erotic/ 9 Jewish poetry in 
the Maghreb was always mainly religious, although it had its other side. 
The great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, vigorously denounced the 
use of poetry. Secular verse was not always respectable, especially song, 
often sung by slave-girls and accompanied by the drinking of wine. 40 

In some branches of European Christianity, the two forms of love, even 
if given the same name, are in many contexts diametrically opposed. In 
the Roman Catholic church, priests are forbidden married love (as well 
of course as unmarried intercourse), whereas they are enjoined to enter 
into the mutual love of God as well as into eternal amity (fraternity), 
to all mankind and indeed to all God's creation. However, quite apart 
from the merit that Catholicism awards to the celibacy of both males and 
females, doubts or qualifications about love, even married love, are part of 
Christian beliefs, in the story of Adam and Eve and embodied in the words 
of Christ and of his disciple Paul. The opposition becomes particularly 
acute in the dualistic versions of the Christian faith, approaching the 
Manichean, where a sharp line is drawn between this world and the next, 
between the evil and earthly on the one hand and the good and spiritual 
on the other. To be a 'perfect' among the Cathars of the twelfth century - 
and all had to aim for this - carnal love has to be renounced as one of the 
things of this world that is completely antithetical to the spiritual, to God, 
to the religious life. As a result they renounced the world, the flesh, and the 
devil. That path of renunciation affects even the Christian laity. Towards 
the end of his life, Tolstoi's new religion of love led to the abandonment 
of his family, and to a renouncing of earthly ties, including the love of 
his wife and thirteen children. Here the shift was not so much between 

38 Zafrani 1986: 109. 39 Zafrani 1986: 134. 40 Zafrani 1986: 136. 

278 Three institutions and values 

earthly and divine love, as between carnal and fraternal love. The Greeks 
distinguished the two main forms of spiritual and earthly love as eros (that 
is erotic, sexual) and agape (fraternal or social) . In Christianity these were 
the same terminologically and the ideas often blurred, but there were 
certainly contexts in which a distinction was drawn. The troubadours 
dealt with earthly love. But so did some trends in the love poetry of 
Sanskrit India, of early China and in Islam. And while the poetry of the 
Jews of the Maghreb was largely religious, the Song of songs points to a 
distinctly secular element (albeit often interpreted allegorically) . What we 
find in most of these traditions, over the long term, is some alternation 
in emphasis between the religious (and puritanical) elements and the 
secular (more expressive) ones. The contemporaries of the troubadour 
poets, from the same regions of southern France, were the Cathars who 
placed secular love firmly within a puritanical religious frame, certainly 
for the 'perfects', the spiritual leaders among them. Ambiguity was to be 
found not only in alternation over time but in contemporary differences 
in belief. 

Let us extend this discussion to the realm of sex, because while love 
and sex cannot be identified, neither in most cases can they be separated. 
True, we have 'platonic love', love of fellow man or woman, love of God, 
even self-love. But in the majority of cases 'making love' with another is 
an aspect of love, and that love is essentially earthly and generally secular. 

The duality between good and evil remains, but in Islam legitimate 
sex falls on the opposite side of the divide compared with the Cathars. 
However, some ambivalence exists very widely in human societies and 
extends to variations in behaviour that surrounds love; in some societies 
sex is forbidden between close kin (as in Christianity), in others broadly 
encouraged (as in Islam). Islam seems to be one religion which does not 
normally put a strong regulatory hand on human sexuality, indeed one 
of the hadith, the traditional tales associated with the life of Mohammed, 
declares that every time a man has lawful sexual intercourse he undertakes 
a work of charity. 41 But ambivalence is nevertheless present; among Arabs 
the ritually appropriate remark in initiating sex relations with one's wife 
was: 'I seek refuge in God from the accursed Satan; in the name of God, 
the beneficent, the merciful.' 42 For while intercourse could imply carrying 
out the service of God, the total situation is more complicated, since Islam 
too harks back to the story of the fall of man which displays an obvious 
aspect of ambivalence about sex. The fall attaches to male sexuality, but 
an Adam requires an Eve, so that there is something here of the same 
doubt about sex and love we have elsewhere found in the Bagre recitation 

41 'On the authority of Abu Dharr.' 42 Goode 1963: 141. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 279 

of the LoDagaa, 43 although in each case unions approved by God seem 
to be opposed to Satan's variety. 

Those committed to the notion of the European discovery of romantic 
love by the troubadours have often discerned a similarly exclusive devel- 
opment of certain attitudes towards sexuality and marriage. For example, 
Elias, whose work we have examined in chapter 6, treats sexuality in a sec- 
tion headed 'changes of attitude towards relations between the sexes'. 44 
In accordance with his general view of the 'history of manners', he begins 
by claiming that 'the feeling of shame surrounding human sexual rela- 
tions changed considerably in the process of civilization'. 43 The evidence 
for that progression he derives from the nineteenth-century comments 
on Erasmus's Colloquies published in the sixteenth century; that work 
expresses 'a different standard of shame' from the later period, a differ- 
ence that is part of the civilizing process since in the later period 'even 
among adults, everything pertaining to sexual life is concealed to a high 
degree and dismissed behind the scenes'. 46 Shame about the sexual act 
is seen as part of the civilizing process of Renaissance Europe. I myself 
would regard it as relating to a much wider ambivalence. 

He perceives a similar progression towards monogamous marriage 
which the Church had proclaimed much early on in its history. 'But mar- 
riage takes on this strict form as a social institution binding on both sexes 
only at a later stage, when drives and impulses come under firmer and 
stricter control. For only then are extramarital relationships for men really 
ostracised socially, or at least subject to absolute secrecy.' 47 This seems 
a highly dubious assertion that perhaps held for the Victorian period in 
Britain but by no means everywhere even in Europe. Yet he firmly pur- 
sues the question in trying to establish his thesis: 'in the course of the 
civilising process the sexual drive, like many others, is subjected to ever 
stricter control and transformation'. 48 It may have been possible to make 
this statement in the 1930s (though I myself have many doubts), but 
after the 1960s it is hardly correct to claim a progression to 'ever stricter 
controls'. Women have experienced some liberation in this as in other 
spheres; men too are not more 'straight-laced' than in Victorian times. 
Indeed, in this respect, Victorian England has to be looked upon as a 
special case of inhibition. 

Qualms about earthly love do not begin with written religions, though 
some have argued from the story of Adam and Eve, so widely proclaimed 

43 Goody and Gandah 2002: 15. 44 Elias 1982: 138 ff. 

45 A note refers to comments by Ginsberg, Montaigne, and Freud about social influences 
on behaviour but which give no support whatsoever to the idea of a progression in notions 
of shame. 

46 Elias 1982: 146. 47 Elias 1982: 150. 48 Elias 1982: 149. 

280 Three institutions and values 

on the facades of Romanesque churches, that it is the Judaeo-Christian 
tradition (as it is so often called, erroneously omitting Islam from their 
company) that confers feelings of guilt on the sexual act, a guilt that 
God forced upon the first humans whose breach of his taboo meant they 
were excluded from Paradise. Indian religion too, though much more 
explicit about the sexual act in temple sculpture, not only encourages its 
renunciation in other ways but sees that act as 'polluting', as bringing 
dirt or impurity, at least spiritual, upon the participants. We see a similar 
ambivalence in accounts of human procreation in the Bagre myth of the 
LoDagaa, an oral culture. 49 In one version the first man and woman have 
sex but display great reticence about admitting the fact to God, who was 
the Creator in a different way. Sexuality is virtually always a private act; 
and this mingling of fluids has its dangers as well as its blessings. 

While it is the troubadours (but not the Cathars who as Manichaeans 
were wary of carnal love) who have so often been credited with the Euro- 
pean invention of love, as we have seen other writers considered the devel- 
opment of that sentiment (at least in its fraternal form) as rooted in Chris- 
tianity itself, in the notion of 'charity' (caritas) and in the injunction to love 
one's neighbour, brother, or another. No explanation is offered of how 
Christianity, with similar roots and sacred texts to Judaism and Islam, 
should have developed independently in this way. In fact all the great 
world religions, born of the Bronze Age with its radical socio-economic 
differences in the form of 'classes', made some provision for the charita- 
ble support of their co-religionists at least. That was included in the role 
of the Islamic waqf as well as of similar institutions among Parsis, Jains, 
Buddhists, and others. Meanwhile the injunction 'love thy neighbour' was 
part of the inevitable universalism of the literate world religions which did 
not remain 'tribal' but aimed to convert people from other groups. 30 In 
any case the injunction was in practice often limited in its application, 
even among members of the same persuasion. This is an area in which, 
more than most, we need to distinguish rhetoric and ideology from prac- 
tice. Despite the assertions of its apologists, in this respect it is difficult 
to see Christianity as having had a particularly important influence on 
people's sentiments. 

Not only is love alleged to be European - a highly questionable the- 
sis - but for a much later period too, historians and sociologists have 
seen the supposed fact of love (at least of the romantic variety) being 
European as one reason for the emergence in that continent of a truly 
modern society, a modernization that is linked to the advent of capital- 
ism, considered to be another European invention. The theme lies behind 

49 Goody and Gandah 2002: 15. 50 See Goody 1986. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 281 

some distinguished contributions in the field of historical demography. 
It is not love but 'family', too, that is at stake in these confrontations. 
In their work on English parish registers of births and deaths since the 
Reformation, Peter Laslett and his colleagues of the Cambridge Group 
showed that households in England had never been of the 'extended' 
variety since mean household size (MHS) numbered only around 4.7 
from the sixteenth century. 31 They saw the small household as linked to 
the nuclear family, the presence of which was deemed one of the factors 
behind the modernization and the capitalism of the west. Sociologists like 
Talcott Parsons pointed to the affinity between industrial capitalism and 
the small family that allowed for the mobility of labour and eliminated 
expenditure on wider kinship obligations. Historians of the family saw 
the 'nuclear family', based on romantic love, as providing the conjugal 
love (through the free choice of spouse) and the parental love (care for 
children) that produced the motivation for bettering oneself in a com- 
petitive environment. Indeed, England, it was argued, did not need to 
await capitalism to adopt this type of household; it was already in place, 
unlike the situation in many other parts of the world who did not share 
this (west) European pattern. 52 

A recent study of The household and the making of history by Mary Hart- 
man (2004), which claims to offer 'a subversive view of the western past', 
states that 'a unique late marriage pattern, discovered in the 1960s but 
originating in the Middle Ages, explains the continuing puzzle of why 
western Europe was the site of changes . . . that gave rise to the modern 
world'. There is nothing new about this Malthusian-type claim, which has 
a long history, involving the linking of demographic facts and ethical or 
social 'progress'. Factually we do not doubt the existence in Europe of an 
unusually late marriage age for men and women, which some have seen 
as encouraging 'love', but the conclusion that these arrangements were 
responsible for the modern world seems exaggerated and highly specula- 
tive and once again teleologically based on a position of later advantage, 
without any thought of comparison. 

These claims for the uniqueness of the European family also present 
problems from the standpoint of the wider study of kinship. China for 
example was thought to be quite different with its so-called 'extended' 
households (which turn out to be confined largely to the better-off who 
have always lived in larger households than the poor). At an early confer- 
ence organized by the Cambridge Group, 3j I offered evidence to show 
that even in societies with kin-groups of considerable size (e.g. clans), the 

51 Laslett and Wall 1972. 52 Laslett and Wall 1972; Hajnal 1965. 

53 The proceedings of which were published in 1972 (Laslett and Wall, eds.). 

282 Three institutions and values 

existential household (as distinct from the houseful, the dwelling group) 
was usually small, based on a reproductive and economic unit 34 not all 
that different in size from that recorded by Laslett for Europe. While 
I recognized the validity of the concept of the European marriage pat- 
tern," the sharp division into European and non-European types was 
far too radical and categorical, ignoring the many similarities between 
eastern and western practices, at least as far as the major post-Bronze- 
Age societies were concerned. For that opposition neglected the common 
features associated with the presence of the dowry and 'the woman's prop- 
erty complex'. 56 Indeed, these considerations led one to question even 
HajnaPs later refinement of the problem relating to mean household size 
in west and east, 37 in which he proposes not so much differences in size 
as differences in the process of household formation. 

Apart from the size of the household, there have been two broad trends 
regarding the evolution of the 'family' in anthropological quarters. The 
first, mainly appearing in speculations of nineteenth-century writers, 
looked for a shift from hordes to tribes to families, involving a change 
from larger to smaller units. That move was reflected in those historical 
accounts which looked for larger (but mainly unanalyzed) units, for exam- 
ple 'the extended family' in earlier societies and smaller ones ('the nuclear 
family') in later, modern ones. However, 'extended' families always have 
'elementary families' at their core; in part at least, the contrast is there- 
fore mistaken. The second trend represents another anthropological view 
derived from the examination of recent field material rather than from 
speculations about an unknown past, and embodied in particular in the 
thesis of the Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, in his mono- 
graph, The family among the Australian aborigines, 58 where he showed that 
even the most 'primitive' of existing societies, the so-called 'hordes' were 
organized on the basis of small conjugal groups. Thus, in relation to these 
units, there was no shift from 'horde' or 'tribe' to 'family'; both could exist 
together side by side. While larger kinship groups tended to disappear over 
historical time, especially in urban societies, the family and its interlock- 
ing personnel remained critical actors in the field of social relationships. 
That seems to me basically the position taken by most of the major social 
theorists in this field, not only Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, and Levi- 
Strauss, but by Evans-Pritchard and Fortes who followed them, whatever 
emphasis they may have given, following Durkheim and Gifford, to the 
much wider lineage. 39 

54 Goody 1972. 55 Hajnal 1982. 56 See Goody 1976. 
57 Hajnal 1982; Goody 1996b. 58 Malinowski 1913. 
59 For a critical comment, see Goody, 1984. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 283 

Accepting this wide prevalence if not universality of the smaller family, 
can we envisage a unit that does not work on the basis of (sexual) 'love' 
for the spouse (or spouses) and (non-sexual) 'love' for the children? The 
first does not necessarily involve partner-choice. It did not in eighteenth- 
century Europe, at least among propertied families. But we can appreciate 
how central that form of love is for ideologically oriented historians of 
modernity because it implies freedom of choice as well as individualism, 
seen as essentially western values. It also implies close relations between 
the partners (though more frequently broken by divorce) and it implies 
equally close (but more fragile) ties between parents and children, leading 
not only to a heavy investment in the training of the young but later on 
to the decision to go for smaller families (quality rather than quantity), a 
process that is known as the demographic transition. Smaller households, 
smaller families, hence more intense relationships between parents and 
children, and between the parents themselves, in other words parental 
love and conjugal love. Optimally such a family was initiated by the choice 
of the partners themselves, not by an arranged marriage (which again 
was less common among the poor where property and status were hardly 
significant issues) . 

Whilst there are various ways of establishing a union of which arranged 
marriages and 'free choice', romance, represent possibilities, few societies 
see these as stark alternatives. 60 Certainly arranged marriages, antipa- 
thetic as they may be to modern Europeans, do not preclude the growth 
of very affectionate relations after marriage has taken place; in this case 
sex precedes love. And if the union does not prove compatible, then 
many societies permit the recourse to divorce after which 'free choice' 
is much more likely to be an important feature in a further marriage. If 
we recall that throughout history human cultures have reproduced them- 
selves through sexual unions, each of which has involved the selection 
of partners (not necessarily by themselves alone, others are frequently 
involved, rules apply), then the claim that only in the west does this involve 
love, or at least romantic love, seems to smack of hubris. And indeed there 
is a minor counter-current in the west that has long recognized something 
special in man-woman relationships in the east, whether expressed in the 
language of flowers which at the beginning of the nineteenth century was 
thought to have been invented in the harems of Turkey, in tales such 
as that of Scheherazade, in the eroticism embodied in the miniatures of 
Mughal court paintings, or in the erotic albums used to tempt or instruct 
Japanese brides and so sought after in late nineteenth-century Europe. 

See Hufton 1995. 

284 Three institutions and values 

In fact that giving of flowers, accompanied by various significations, has 
long existed in the major societies of Asia. 

In extreme cases this conjunction of males and females has been 
attributed to lust rather than to love, especially in polygynous societies. 
This dichotomy is wrong and relationships, at least comparable to what 
we call love, are to be found even in the simple non-literate cultures of 
Africa, such as the LoDagaa of northern Ghana, 61 although a significant 
factor in many a first marriage was the wishes of parents. 

However, although I regard love as being present in African cultures, 
oral 'literature' fails to elaborate the sentiment in the way found in the 
major societies of Europe and Asia. Note that all these societies are liter- 
ate and our evidence for twelfth-century France and those other societies 
is essentially textual. Literacy means that the presentation of love takes a 
special form. In the first place, one does not employ writing except when 
one is communicating at a distance (unless you are a school teacher with 
a class, a blackboard, and a piece of chalk) . So the written communica- 
tive act is very different from those that involve a face-to-face audience, 
as in purely oral cultures. Written love poetry is essentially a matter of 
communicating with someone who has gone away, has been left behind, 
or is 'distant' (perhaps socially) in some other way, a characteristic that 
has already been noted of troubadour poetry but can equally be found in 
Chinese verse, as I have argued earlier in this chapter. Secondly, the com- 
position of poetry or prose in writing involves a process of reflection that 
is again different from speech itself. There is a reflexivity about what one 
is writing that encourages an elaboration of the expression of sentiment 
that one rarely finds in purely oral cultures. Consequently the poetry of 
love is likely to be more elaborate in literate societies and more so at 
certain times than at others. We do not imply for one moment that an 
identical notion of 'love' is to be found in all societies, nor, above all, that 
'romantic love' is everywhere the main method of seeking a spouse. Nev- 
ertheless that form of relationship is certainly not the unique prerogative 
of the west nor of the modern. Nor, it should be said, is the 'congruent 
love' recently sponsored by the sociologist Giddens as post-romantic and 
characteristic of 'modern' society 62 and as the evolutionary successor to 
'romantic love'. 

The contrary view about the previous absence of love and of choice 
was part and parcel of the idea that early societies were organized on a 
collective rather than on an individual basis. That notion, which gave rise 
to that of 'primitive communism', was partly supported by the presence 
of larger kin groups (clans or kindreds) but failed to take account of 

61 Goody 1998: 1 1 3ff. 62 Giddens 1991. 

Stolen love: European claims to the emotions 285 

the ways that these groups were always divided into 'nested segments' 
('segmentary lineages', for example) which acted on their own account. 
At their base was often a 'minimal lineage' around which clustered an 
elementary or perhaps more complex family. Equally, land tenure was 
virtually never communal in the manner implied by that phrase; small 
groups had more or less exclusive rights to the produce of a farm, and 
usually to the outcome of a hunt, though these activities could sometimes 
take more communal forms. 

What is a notable factor in this discussion of the expression of love 
(especially romantic) is that most (but not all) systems outside Europe 
encourage an early age for such unions. Girls get married soon after 
puberty and are sometimes betrothed beforehand, either through partic- 
ular arrangements or through the kinship system, for example in Islam 
to the father's brother's daughter, though a degree of choice is often 
allowed. Arrangements of this kind may be made partly to be sure of 
a partner, partly to provide a suitable one (a 'match'), partly (where 
contraceptive techniques are limited) to avoid the birth of children not 
considered legitimate under current norms. When this happens we do not 
find long periods of adolescence in which sex is postponed, when sexual 
partners are being sought, and where the final prospects are 'distant'. It 
is in that postponed search that 'romantic love' is frequently elaborated 
and expressed, that unsatisfied longings abound. Nevertheless, even at 
an early age prospective partners may become submerged in each other's 
personality and readily go off to live in a strange household. In these cir- 
cumstances, it is love (not often expressed) that is apparent rather than 

There is an important difference between the expression of an emotion 
and its existence. As I have suggested, it is elaborated in the written word, 
characteristically in love-letters, which are found widely in literate cul- 
tures. But the emotion is present much more widely, even if the forms are 
different. It really does rule the world, not only the continent of Europe. 

Finally, the associated claim that love is uniquely European has also 
had a number of political implications being bound up not only with the 
development of capitalism but also being used in the service of imperial- 
ism. There is a palace in Merida in Yucatan, the decoration of which por- 
trays helmeted and armoured conquistadores towering over vanquished 
savages, with an inscription that proclaims the conquering power of love. 
That emotion, fraternal rather than sexual, had been claimed by the impe- 
rialist conquerors from Europe. Love literally conquers all in the hands 
of the invading military. 

1 1 Last words 

In this book I have been concerned with the way that Europe has stolen 
the history of the East by imposing its own versions of time (largely 
Christian) and of space on the rest of the Eurasian world. We can perhaps 
claim that a world history demands a single reckoning of time and space 
which Europe has provided. But my special problem has been with the 
attempts at periodization that historians have made, dividing historical 
time into Antiquity, Feudalism, the Renaissance followed by Capitalism; 
this development is seen as leading from one to the other in a unique 
transformation until the dominance of the known world by Europe in the 
nineteenth century, following the Industrial Revolution that is considered 
to have begun in England. Here the question of imposing concepts has 
very different, teleological, implications. 

Colonial or world domination in any form carries a considerable dan- 
ger as well as possible benefits for intellectual work, not so much in the 
sciences as in the humanities where the 'truth' criteria are less clear-cut. 
In the present case the west assumes a superiority (which it has obviously 
displayed in some spheres since the nineteenth century) and projects that 
superiority back in time, creating a teleological history. The problem for 
the rest of the world is that such beliefs are used to justify the way 'others' 
are treated, since those others are often seen as static, as being unable 
to change themselves, certainly without help from outside. But history 
teaches us that any superiority is a temporary factor and that we also have 
to look for alternation. Already the enormous country of China seems to 
be taking a leading role in the economy, which can be the basis of educa- 
tional, military, and cultural power, as earlier it was in Europe and then in 
the USA, and earlier still in China itself. This latest shift has been carried 
out by a communist government, without much deliberate help from the 

In this study I have been trying to lay out the way in which the domina- 
tion of the world by Europe since its expansion in the sixteenth century, 
but above all since its leading position in the world's economy through to 


Last words 287 

the industrialization of the nineteenth century, resulted in the domination 
of accounts of the world's history. I call the alternative an anthropo- 
archaeological approach to modern history. It starts from the work of the 
prehistorian Gordon Childe who described the Bronze Age as the Urban 
Revolution, the onset of 'civilization' in the literal sense. The Bronze Age 
began in the Ancient Near East, spreading eastwards to India and China, 
south to Egypt and west to the Aegean. It consisted of the introduction 
of mechanized agriculture, in the shape of the cattle-drawn plough, the 
large-scale control of water, the development of the wheel and of a variety 
of urban crafts, including the invention of writing, probably connected 
with the expansion of mercantile activity. This specialization in towns 
obviously required an increase in productivity to enable artisans and oth- 
ers to escape from primary agricultural production, and at the same time 
it encouraged vast differences in land-holdings between 'classes', since 
one was no longer confined to produce with the hoe but with the help of 
the plough could cultivate much more territory. The plough is simply an 
inverted hoe, mechanized by being drawn by animal transport, but which 
represents a great advance in productivity. 

The Bronze Age was initially an Asian-based 'civilization' which long 
preceded the European Renaissance linked by Elias to the civilizing pro- 
cess. I want to enquire historically how it was that the comparative unity 
of the Bronze Age then was considered to break up into a European and 
an Asiatic branch, with the former thought of as opposing a dynamic con- 
tinent characterized by the growth of capitalism and the latter marked by 
stasis, by despotism and by what Marx called 'Asiatic exceptionalism', 
based upon different 'modes of production'. 

The split had to begin somewhere. Where did it start? There is a gen- 
eral agreement that the Minoan situation (and necessarily the Egyptian) 
belonged to the Bronze Age, with its early written tradition. The split was 
seen as coming in Europe first with Archaic Greek, then Roman, Anti- 
quity, which was held to be fundamentally different from what went on 
before and that however took place partly in Asia, with Homer's story and 
the Ionian philosophers. I argue that this idea of difference, of divergence 
was produced largely by Europeans, either in the Renaissance which they 
saw as the rebirth of classical Antiquity (through humanism) or in the 
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when the economy of the Industrial 
Revolution in Europe gave that continent a distinct economic advantage 
over the rest of the world (an advantage that had begun with the learn- 
ing, the economy, and the guns and sails of the Renaissance) . In other 
words, there was a strong element of teleology behind the European claim 
that its tradition distinguished itself in earlier times when its subsequent 
superiority was seen as having its origin. 

288 Three institutions and values 

But how far in fact did Antiquity itself distinguish the period as a sep- 
arate phase? The classical historian, Moses Finley, saw Ancient Greece 
as inventing democracy, the rule of the people. That is a theme close 
to the hearts of contemporary politicians, of Bush and Blair, who see it 
as characteristic of our Judaeo-Christian civilization (from which Islam 
is excluded, although it was plainly the third member), as a gift Europe 
can now export to the rest of the world. There is little doubt that Athens 
was one of the first to institutionalize the direct popular, written, vote 
and that this was seen to distinguish that polity from the monarchical 
regimes of Persia and other Asian states, though the preliterate kingdom 
of Dahomey took a vote by means of dropping stones in a container. 
As a city-state, Athens was small enough to operate by direct repre- 
sentation. Nevertheless the city state and its democracy did not exist 
only there. That form of government was present in the city states of 
Phoenicia, of present-day Lebanon, especially in Tyre which was the 
mother city of the Phoenician colony of Carthage. Not only had Phoeni- 
cia developed the vowel-less alphabet used to write down the Bible as 
well as other Arabic and other Semitic works, but they also had a form 
of democracy by which representatives (sufrafetes) were chosen not every 
few years but every year, thus ensuring a close link between public opin- 
ion and government. But Carthage has been written out of world, or 
at any rate, European history. It was African, not European; it was 
Semitic, not Aryan, Indo-European; and its libraries were dispersed, 
partly as the result of the Roman conquest, so we hear much less of its 

But it was not only Phoenicia. Even monarchical systems in Asia might 
have democratic governments in their constituent towns. While in the 
vicinity of many centralized governments, that is, kingdoms, we find peo- 
ples with very different systems of acephalous, representative government, 
described by Ibn Khaldun for the Bedouin and for Fortes and Evans- 
Pritchard for Africa more generally. Antiquity was not the only source for 
the model of democratic rule. 

Finley also celebrates Antiquity as having invented 'art'. Obviously it 
invented Greek art, very important in Europe and indeed in world history. 
But there is no way that it invented art per se. The round columns of 
Greece for instance came from Egypt; that country and Assyria were 
both of great importance in the development of visual forms, but in any 
case many other countries, apart from the west, were of significance in 
the artistic fields. The apparent world-wide authority of the west in this 
sphere is very much connected with the nineteenth-century dominance of 
Europe, and through Europe of the world. But the problem comes when 

Last words 289 

Antiquity is viewed as a direct but necessary stage of world development 
on the way to western capitalism. 

In the European view, Antiquity is not only a period but a type of 
society, unique to that continent. It was necessary for them to establish 
Antiquity as a distinct phase of development because the collapse of the 
Roman Empire was eventually followed by the rise of another period, 
namely feudalism, which was also seen as unique to the west and whose 
contradictions gave rise to the subsequent emergence of capitalism in 
the west. The concept of Antiquity has been elaborated by European 
classicists to account for the singularity of the traditions coming down 
from Greece and Rome. While those societies certainly differed from 
other ancient cultures, just as they differed from earlier Archaic Greece 
and Rome, radical attempts were made to distinguish them from others 
not so much on the basis of the economy as of the political system and 
the ideology - for example, democracy and freedom found in Europe 
as distinct from tyranny and despotism supposedly prevalent in Asia. 
Whatever the case with these prestigious attributes, what is quite clear 
is that knowledge systems were considerably advanced in the classical 
world by the technologies of the intellect, by the adoption of the alphabet; 
its widespread use extended the possibilities of the written word, first 
invented in Mesopotamia and Egypt, subsequently moving towards a 
phonetic alphabet in Syria (Ugarit) and then in mainland Greece. The 
Greek alphabet was of course unique in its representation of vowels, and 
highly influential for later Europe. But it was close to the Phoenician and 
the consequences of the relatively minor difference, and of differences 
with other forms of writing, were not as radical as many, including Watt 
and myself, had supposed. 

Other scholars have used Christianity in a similar way to point to 
Europe's singularity. But Christianity was one of a trilogy of West Asian 
religions, using related myths and scriptures, embracing similar values 
and codes. There was little specifically European about it, with the main 
early ideologues coming from the Near East, or, in the case of Augustine, 
from North Africa. It was a thoroughly intercontinental Mediterranean 
creed, with an Old Testament of a partly nomadic, Semitic background 
of parched deserts and fertile oases. 

The critical point in the history of the modern world has been not 
the search for the singularity of early Europe but the abandonment of 
the prehistorian's perspective, epitomized by Gordon Childe in What 
happened in history, a view that stresses the broad unity of Bronze Age 
civilizations across Europe and Asia. This unity, fractured by the western 
notion of a purely European Antiquity (who else had it?), was based on 

290 Three institutions and values 

the development of many artisanal crafts, including that of writing itself. 
Early writing was associated, inter alia, with religious scriptures, placing 
instruction in the hands of the priesthood (the teachers were priests), the 
growth of temple as well as of palace complexes, and the development of 
the religious body into what the ancient historian, Oppenheim, called 'a 
great organisation'. The notion of an independent European Antiquity 
breaks with this broad unity, proclaims a phase in the history of the world 
that is unique to Europe and in the minds of its protagonists prefigures 
the development of modernity and of capitalism in that continent. There 
is little at the economic level to justify this exceptionalism. Iron came 
to be used instead of bronze throughout these civilizations, with many 
implications of a 'democratic' kind (iron was more widely available and 
more serviceable than bronze) for warfare, for farming, for crafts, and 
also for the development of 'machinery', though for this purpose wood 
remained the dominant material until the nineteenth century. Some soci- 
eties undoubtedly developed faster than others. In the ancient world, 
Greece took the lead in forms of urban construction, temples, schools, 
domestic buildings in towns such as Ephesus, as well as in the production 
not only of written knowledge and of literature but of the arts more gen- 
erally, although depending in many spheres on Near Eastern precedents 
(the famed column, for instance) and rivalled in others by distant India 
and China. However, the problem of Antiquity becomes especially acute, 
both for the present and for the past, when European scholars attribute 
the prestigious origin of a form of government (democracy), of values like 
freedom, of individualism, even of 'rationality', to this historical period, 
and hence to Europe rather than elsewhere. 

The economy has not been selected as major factor of this difference, 
except for the description of Greece and Rome as slave societies that has 
been used 'paradoxically' to strengthen the notion of Antiquity, by con- 
trast, as 'inventing' freedom. It is said to have invented not only freedom 
but democracy and individualism. I have suggested that the claim has 
been greatly exaggerated, as has the unique role of slavery. Achievements 
in literature, science, and the arts are quite outstanding, but should be 
seen as extensions of the Bronze Age cultures of the region, as Bernal 
has argued. The attempt to distinguish these as societies of quite another 
type follows the Greeks' own desire to set Europe apart from Asia as well 
as that of subsequent western scholars to boost their own lineage. 

It may well be that, as the partial result of the alphabet, the abundance 
of the literary sources themselves has created the overall impression of 
a different 'mentality' and way of life. In moving from prehistory to his- 
tory, the actors begin to speak for themselves through a written language. 
One is no longer confined to the interpretation of predominantly material 

Last words 291 

data, but one has to take into account the 'spiritual', the verbal (recorded 
in writing); one is forced to take into account how the Greeks thought 
of themselves (which one cannot do for the Phoenicians in the same way 
because they left so little writing behind them). That means giving greater 
weight to their opinions of themselves and of others, as well as raising 
the consequent danger of accepting their self-evaluation as the 'truth'. 
Their values become our judgements. We accept (and even extend) their 
appropriation of democracy, of freedom, and of other 'virtues'. Greece 
differed only in degree from Phoenicia and Carthage which have been 
largely written out of the script. The small city-states that existed in 
both areas could arrange more flexible systems of government than larger 
units, although at times they too acquired, even chose, tyrants. But other 
types of society employed democratic procedures and there is no way 
that Greece or Europe can be considered as the inventors of popular 
consultation, although it may have developed a written one. Nor yet of 
freedom. Was it with tongue-in-cheek that Finley saw the emergence of 
the concept of freedom in Greece in opposition to slavery? In fact many 
communities living on the margins of great states, or any centralized 
polity, deliberately rejected centralized authority (for example, the Robin 
Hoods of all around the globe) while some, for other reasons altogether, 
organized themselves in different, 'acephalous', ways. The peoples of the 
margins, of the deserts, of the woods, and of the hills would always pro- 
vide a different model for government than the centralized peoples of the 

The exclusion of Phoenicia, pre-empting the later exclusion of the rest 
of Asia and the east, is an index of the fragility of the concept of a unique 
European Antiquity, since to many contemporaries its colony, Carthage, 
was clearly the rival to Rome and Greece. For later Europeans it has never 
been seen as having left behind a similar literary heritage, but that may 
well be because of the deliberate destruction or dispersal of its libraries 
by Romans and others, or because of the ephemeral nature of papyrus. 
Some have interpreted this exclusion as a matter of 'Aryan' Europeans 
disregarding the influence of Semitic Asians or Africans on major devel- 
opments, which is certainly one possibility. But we should treat gingerly 
the claim of Bernal and more recently of Hobson that such exclusion 
arose from nineteenth-century anti-Semitism or imperialism; these fea- 
tures belong to the wider category of ethnocentrism that goes back much 
further in time, being part of the inevitable process of defining identity 
(though that itself is variable in strength at particular periods and partic- 
ular places). 

Just as Antiquity is seen to have no counterparts elsewhere, so in most 
accounts feudalism too was confined to the west. Some have doubted this 

292 Three institutions and values 

restriction - Kowalewski for India, Coulbourn for other areas, but in the 
kind of evolutionary schema that Marx laid out or implicitly accepted, 
Antiquity necessarily preceded European feudalism, just as the latter was 
essential for European capitalism. The contradictions inherent in one 
phase led to their resolution in the next. The assertion of uniqueness 
was appealing to many western medievalists; even though they were not 
committed to the explicit unilinear arguments of Marx, nevertheless the 
European trajectory was considered unique. So of course it was, but in 
what respects and in respect of what? Was it dependent land-tenure, was 
it decentralized government? What is needed in respect of both these 
features is an analytic grid against which the variations can be plotted. By 
itself the assertion that 'we are different' can provide little useful basis for 
analysis or enquiry. We need to know which of its 'unique' factors was 
essential to the growth of the 'modern' world. 

For, associated with this view of Marx and others, is the notion of 
feudalism as a 'progressive phase' in world history, heading towards the 
'ultimate' development of 'capitalism'. It is not easy to see it as such in 
the west of Europe, where the collapse of urban settlement was exten- 
sive. So too were the activities connected with the towns, some urban 
crafts, education, literary activity, knowledge systems, art, and theatre. 
Of course, matters gradually improved; a 'rebirth' there had to be, if 
only because of mercantile exchange. There were some changes in the 
rural domain, which has received most attention. But towns did not start 
to revive in the west until about the eleventh century, monastic schools 
somewhat earlier, the economy about the same time, most of the arts 
and intellectual life, too, really with the early universities though the real 
recovery did not come until the justly named Renaissance. When the 
European economy did eventually revive, it was largely dependent on 
the Italian trade with the eastern Mediterranean, a region that had never 
experienced the same devastation as the west. There towns continued to 
nourish, trading with the further east. Intellectual life as well as trade, 
too, owed a great deal to the Muslim east and south before the four- 
teenth century, based not only on translations from the Greek but on 
their own contributions (as well as on those of the Jews) in medicine, 
astronomy, mathematics, and other spheres. India and China too played 
their part in this revival, for the band of Islamic societies stretched right 
across the whole of Asia, from southern Spain to the frontiers of China. 
More particularly there was the eastern origin of many plants, trees, and 
flowers (oranges, tea, and chrysanthemums), as well as the innovations 
that Francis Bacon saw as central to modern society, the compass, paper, 
and gunpowder, not to speak of the eastern origin of the printing press 
and of the manufacture, indeed industrialization, of porcelain and of silk 

Last words 293 

and cotton textiles. Little of this achievement makes early feudalism look 
a particularly progressive period in European or world history; in the west 
progress was often exogenous in character, though that is not at all how 
many European scholars see the question. For them Europe had been 
set on a self-sufficient, self-made course in Antiquity which led inevitably 
through feudalism, to colonial and commercial expansion, and then to 
industrial capitalism. But that is teleological history that excluded other 
social formations from these developments, seeing them as imprisoned 
in static, despotic states built on irrigation and immense towns. Whereas 
the west had rain-fed agriculture (in general much less productive) and 
smaller towns. 

These non-European towns are often denied the description of 'hav- 
ing a bourgeoisie'; they were different, according to Weber, even though 
they displayed many of the same kinds and levels of achievement as in 
the west, in particular, in domestic and in 'cultural' life, as well as in 
commerce and in manufactures. Chapter 6 analyzed the study of the 
sociologist Elias of the sociogenesis of 'civilization' which concentrated 
solely upon the post-Renaissance west. The whole notion of 'civilized' 
(urbanized, polite) behaviour which was so marked in China over many 
centuries is neglected. In this case Europe has stolen the idea and actu- 
ality of the civilization process. But how civilized was the west before it 
acquired paper from the Arabs, and through them from China? A bet- 
ter balance between the civilizations is achieved by Fernandez-Armesto 
in his book Millennium, 1 which begins with Heian Japan and treats the 
major Eurasian societies as being on a similar level. 

Obviously important movements, manufacturing, commercial, intel- 
lectual, artistic, took place at the time of the European Renaissance. But 
so too other revivals have taken place in written cultures in Eurasia, per- 
haps less spectacularly, as a result both of internal developments and of 
reciprocal interaction. For Europe, these changes have been chronicled 
by the historian Braudel who makes a determined effort to consider com- 
parative data, setting aside for example Weber's attribution of importance 
to the Protestant ethic (chapter 7) which has for so long been a stand-by 
of European explanations of their achievements (but less comforting to 
Italian and other Catholics). He points to the extensive market activity 
that characterized the east well before the west; mercantile capitalism 
flourished later in Europe, and was never confined to one continent or 
the other. But 'finance capitalism' he sees as the critical western contri- 
bution to 'true capitalism'. It is the case that industrial capitalism, with 
its expensive manufacturing plants, required greatly increased capital; so 

1 Fernandez-Armesto 1995. 

294 Three institutions and values 

too did the national economy. But the basis for this expansion was already 
present in the banking and financial reforms that emerged in Italy in rela- 
tion to the rise in Mediterranean trade with the east. That development 
produced similar institutions that already existed or were soon to develop 
in the major trading centres of Asia. 

The same case can be made for industrialization. Here too there was a 
spectacular development in the Industrial Revolution in Britain and the 
west. But once again, the bases were to be found earlier and elsewhere. 
The major Bronze Age economies gave rise to some large-scale manu- 
facturing enterprises, especially for textiles, and mostly run by the state. 
In Mesopotamia woollen cloth was manufactured in what the archae- 
ologist, Wooley, called 'factories'. His Soviet counterpart, Diakonoff, 
protested that they were only workshops, following Marx in reserving 
the term 'factory' for later capitalist (or proto-capitalist) production. In 
India, under the Mughals, kharkhanas were again state-organized institu- 
tions employing workers under one large roof to engage in the large-scale 
production of cotton cloth. China is an even more clear-cut case of an 
early form of industrialization. Ledderose has written of the extensive 
production of ceramics ('china') shipped in large quantities to the west 
and how it was marked by modular (mass) production techniques with 
a complex division of labour of an Adam Smithian kind. The manufac- 
ture of ceramics in China has been described as industrial, making use of 
a complex division of labour, of modular production and a factory-type 
organization. Equally, while silk textiles were largely woven in a domestic 
context before being acquired by the state through taxation, paper which 
was used so widely after its development around the beginning of the 
Common Era was also made by an 'industrial' process. That was mechan- 
ical too, since paper was produced using the water-mill, the prototype of 
the later factories ('mills') used in the west for textile manufacture, and 
employing in addition to human labour the energy derived from flowing 
streams and rivers, providing a cheaper writing material than local silk 
or than the skins (parchment) and imported papyrus of Europe, the lat- 
ter expensively brought in from Egypt, since by the new process paper 
could be made anywhere out of local materials. Paper manufacture spread 
throughout the Muslim world and eventually reached western Europe in 
time for the printing revolution, coming first to Italy from Sicily. The 
presence of this cheap locally manufactured, mass-produced material for 
writing meant that even without printing the circulation of information 
and ideas was considerably more rapid and extensive in the east than in the 

The notion of 'Asiatic exceptionalism' that characterized so much of 
historians' teleological thinking about the past, overwhelmed as they are 

Last words 295 

by the development of modernity' and 'industrial capitalism' in the west, 
blinds them to the many similarities that existed. In a recent book Brot- 
ton has written of the Renaissance Bazaar and the contribution made 
by Turkey and the Near East generally to that period. We could also 
think of the contribution made by Islam in Spain to earlier 'renascences', 
mathematical, medical, literary (for example, to troubadour poetry and to 
narrative fiction), to Platonic studies and to the ideas of Dante. However, 
there is a further step that we need to take, to consider the idea that such 
rebirths were not a purely European phenomenon. Theoretically, every 
literate society can resurrect knowledge that has been forgotten or delib- 
erately set aside. In Europe following the classical period, the Christian 
church had been involved in setting aside a great deal of classical learning, 
stigmatized as pagan, as forbidden or as redundant to their beliefs, not 
only in the fields of the arts (viz., sculpture, theatre, and secular painting), 
but also in science (e.g. medicine). The severity was such that when the 
rebirth came, it was more marked in Europe than elsewhere, and indeed 
the pace of the recovery in intellectual matters was more rapid under 
the impact of printing and paper as well as with the renewal of extensive 
commerce, especially with the east. 

The problem about seeing the Renaissance as a revival or even con- 
tinuation of classical life is this - although Roman buildings continued 
to affect the life of the church in many ways, both as models and as 
structures, and Latin continued to be used by Christians in the west, the 
coming of that religion and the collapse of the Empire had led to a sharp 
break. I have spoken of the disappearance of literacy, of schools, of urban 
crafts, possibly even of Christianity in Britain. There was also the wider 
disappearance of Greek and Roman art, especially sculpture and the the- 
atre, because of the ideological adoption of Semitic iconoclasm, putting 
limits on representation. I am aware this did not continue in the same 
form in a Catholic religious context, but in a lay, secular one it effectively 
did until the early Renaissance. Europe had a lot to throw aside until the 
expression of secularism once again became possible. That made con- 
ceivable the rebirth of a secular theatre, giving rise to the work of the 
Paduan secretary, Albertino Mussato, whose tragedy of Ecerinis (1329), 
a local tyrant, was written in Latin verse modelled on that of Seneca. But 
it was still a long way (250 years) to the vernacular plays of Marlowe and 
Shakespeare in English, of Racine and Corneille in French. 

In other words, in many spheres there was a significant break with 
Antiquity in post-Roman times, a break which required a rebirth, a Renais- 
sance in the west - but not in the east where there had been no such 
formidable gap in urban culture. Indeed it was the east which helped to 
restore the west, not only commercially but in the arts and sciences as 

296 Three institutions and values 

well. There was the influence of Islam in Andalucia, on Brunetto Latini 
(Dante's teacher) for example, the influence of Arabic numerals whose 
use in the west was spread by Pope Sylvester II. But take the example of 
medicine. Its study in the west had fallen behind, partly because of a ban 
on dissection, on cutting up the human body, partly throught an absence 
of medical texts, by Galen for example. These latter were brought back 
into western medicine by the many translations by the Muslim world, 
through Constantine the African at Monte Cassino (near the medical 
school of Salerno) and by others around Montpellier. The problem is 
that if we see medicine as based simply on a revival of classical schol- 
arship, we tend to exclude the fact that this scholarship, and important 
Muslim additions, came to us by an indirect route. 

It was the east, which had not experienced the decline of the west- 
ern Roman empire, that stimulated the Renaissance, since it did not go 
through the same disastrous collapse of 'culture' as western Europe and 
remained a focus of trade and cultural transfer when initially the Italian 
towns, especially Venice, renewed the links which were to prove so impor- 
tant. Throughout Asia, the east did not need the same rebirth since it did 
not have the same death. That is why China remained ahead of the west, 
in science until the sixteenth century, in the economy (according to Bray 
and others) until the end of the eighteenth. It neither had the extensive 
material collapse nor did it have in the same way a restrictive, hegemonic 
religion. Despite the assertions of many writers, it developed an active 
mercantile urban culture even before Europe. Weber, Pirenne, Braudel, 
and others concentrate on what they think was different about towns 
in Asia. These arguments were teleologically based and very dubious. 
Look for instance at the culture of flowers and of food, which I have dis- 
cussed in detail in other contexts. Each of these developments preceded 
those in post-classical Europe. The development of connoisseurship and 
of interest in the 'antique' in this sense was roughly contemporary with 
Europe. So too with theatre (kabuki in Japan, for example) and the real- 
istic novel, though later than classical achievements. This is completely 
understandable if we abandon the idea of Asiatic (and indeed of Euro- 
pean) exceptionalism and think rather in terms of roughly parallel devel- 
opments since the Urban Revolution, varying of course in tempo and in 
content, that occurred throughout Eurasia, based upon similar processes 
of social evolution and broadly reciprocal exchange relationships. Trade 
required such contacts that involved not merely the exchange of material 
goods but of information, including information about techniques and 

Again we need to consider the intellectual developments of the Renais- 
sance that we speak of as the scientific revolution. This was not of course 

Last words 297 

the beginning of science. Joseph Needham edited a series of extremely 
important volumes on Chinese achievements in which he concludes that 
science was more advanced in that vast country until the sixteenth cen- 
tury. At that time paper and printing had recently come into Europe which 
permitted the much faster circulation of information (like computers later 
on). Thus Needham sees the west as taking over and as introducing a sci- 
ence based upon the testing of mathematically formed hypotheses. He 
called this 'modern science' and linked it to the coming of capitalism, the 
bourgeoisie, and the Renaissance. However, it has been suggested that 
the testing was influenced by Arab alchemists while mathematics came 
originally from a large number of sources. Moreover, Needham's sug- 
gestion involves the particular developmental hypothesis that I have been 
criticizing. My preference is for more regular evolutionary change rather 
than for a sudden revolution of a putative kind. 'Modern science' should 
be more closely linked to earlier science, and developments in the west 
seen as more continuous with China than Needham finally proposes. 

Equally Elias for 'civilization' and Braudel for 'true capitalism' have 
abrogated critical parts of the developmental process to the west. The 
same has been done for institutions more generally, especially the town 
and the university. I discuss the combined problem in chapter 8 and 
find that the uniqueness argument has been greatly overdone, especially 
with the towns. There is some indication that the university in western 
Europe managed to throw off religious bonds and to secularize learn- 
ing earlier than, say, the madrasas of Islam, but China never had that 
problem with higher education as it escaped the embrace of a hegemonic 
creed with its own vision of the world. Undoubtedly there were special 
features of both these institutions in the west but the claim that Europe 
invented the type most conducive to capitalism seems to contradict the 
long-standing parallelism between east and west. This parallelism has not 
prevented Europeans from attributing to themselves a variety of virtues 
(chapter 9) which they consider to have helped them, rather than others, 
to achieve modernization. It started (at least as far as the written evidence 
goes) with the Greeks. As we have seen, they often defined themselves 
as democratic in permitting the people to choose their government (at 
least all the people except slaves, women and metics), while the states 
of Asia practised 'tyranny'. It is a similar story with individualism. That 
feature long existed in many of these groups; the notion of the 'collective' 
primitive, of 'primitive communism' as a type of society, is unacceptable, 
even though in some societies certain rights to resources might be held in 

Emotions, too, have been appropriated by the west. The most clear- 
cut case is that of love, which some Europeans have claimed as being 

298 Three institutions and values 

invented by twelfth-century troubadours, others as an intrinsic feature of 
Christianity, like charity; for some, too, it characterizes the European, 
even the English, family, and for others the modern, western world. 
All these claims are equally unsustainable. If Hollywood has marketed 
'romantic love', it did not invent it. Nor did the English, nor the Chris- 
tians, nor the moderns, while the troubadours of Provence and Aquitaine 
had a great deal of help from their Arabo-Spanish neighbours who 
were heirs to a long and important tradition of secular (and religious) 
love poetry from the Near East, going back to at least the Song of songs. 
While it is interesting to enquire what led Europeans to make claims for 
the unique development of certain virtues and emotions, the proofs of 
that uniqueness are lacking and could only emerge from a systematic 
comparison at a cross-cultural level. 

Let me return to Childe's notion of the Urban Revolution of the Bronze 
Age which was clearly connected with L. H. Morgan's concept of civi- 
lization and the culture of cities as presented in Ancient Society 2 as well 
as with more general sources. One great advantage of this notion is that 
it does not privilege the west but describes a common historical devel- 
opment that took place in the Ancient Near East, reaching Egypt and 
the Aegean, in India and China. The resulting cultural affinity between 
the main urban civilizations of Eurasia at this period runs up against the 
notion of a radical discontinuity or difference that is the basis of some of 
the major and most influential socio-historical accounts of world devel- 
opment. According to the dominant European view, looking back in the 
nineteenth century from a standpoint of the undoubted achievements fol- 
lowing the Industrial Revolution, historians and sociologists (and to some 
extent anthropologists) felt they had to account for the differences. So the 
west was seen as passing through a number of stages of development from 
ancient society, to feudalism, to capitalism. The east on the other hand 
was marked by what Marx saw as 'Asiatic exceptionalism', characterized 
by hydraulic agriculture and despotic government, in contrast to the west, 
especially Europe, which was rain-fed and consultative. That is not just a 
Marxist argument; it was held in a different form by Weber and by many 
historians, and versions of it have been put forward by the sociologist, M. 
Mann/ and by others who are wedded to a commitment to long-term 
European advantage - eurocentric historians the geographer Blaut calls 
them. Those versions take many forms; for example, there is the highly 
influential account given by Malthus for the failures of China to control 
her population because she did not have the internalized restraints of 
the west, a view bearing some resemblances to Weber's idea of the role 

2 Morgan 1877. 3 Mann 1986. 

Last words 299 

of the Protestant ethic in the birth of capitalism, the nature of restraint 
being widely taken up by the demographic-historians of the Cambridge 
Group under the leadership of Peter Laslett, and indeed that was likewise 
proposed by Freud and Elias. 

Certainly there were broad differences in the sequencing of social life 
in the west and east. In the west of Europe, the fall of the classical empires 
meant a partial decay of urban civilization, some disappearance of towns, 
and the increased importance of the countryside and its rulers, lead- 
ing eventually to 'feudalism'. In the European account of the process 
this stage is often seen as a 'progressive' move in terms of world his- 
tory, resulting in the birth of a new kind of town, beginning with the 
communes of North Italy, sheltering their freedom-loving bourgeoisie, 
their autonomous governments and displaying the various features that 
made them the forerunners of capitalism and modernization. But the 
sequence also goes back to earlier views of Asia as 'despotic' in contrast 
to 'democratic' Greece (though it also had its tyrants, just as Asia had its 
democrats). Europe certainly had theirs. 

The notion of Asiatic exceptionalism has recently come under fire. It 
has been implicitly criticized among others by Eric Wolf in his work on 
Europe and the people without history 1 where he suggested that the author- 
ity systems of both the east and the west, despotic or democratic, should 
be seen as variants one of another, of the 'tributary state', with the east 
sometimes being more centralized than the west. The implications for the 
later development of capitalism have been firmly criticized by a new gen- 
eration of European scholars who have rejected or modified the notion of 
European advantage before the Industrial Revolution and whose work I 
have discussed in a recent book entitled Capitalism and modernisation: the 
great debate. 5 But little attempt has so far been made to link up these new 
perspectives on post-classical history with the earlier work on the simi- 
larities of development in Eurasia that emerges from the archaeological 
background. If there was a broad unity in terms of 'civilization' at the time 
of the Bronze Age, how did that 'exceptionalism' in the east and the corre- 
sponding uniqueness of the west subsequently emerge? Did it ever emerge 
at all? Was the disappearance of towns (and the prevalence of 'feudalism') 
ever anything but a particular western European episode in world history? 
Because around the Mediterranean, towns, especially as ports or 'ports- 
of-trade', continued to have a vigorous life in Constantinople, Damascus, 
Aleppo, Baghdad, Alexandria, and elsewhere. And of course further east 
as well. Some time later, Venice recaptured the spirit and activity of its 
Roman past and vigorously entered into a profitable exchange with the 

4 Wolf 1982. 5 Goody 2004. 

300 Three institutions and values 

east. If we look at the more or less continuous history of towns in Asia 
we get a very different picture of world history rather than by concentrat- 
ing on the decay of urban culture and on the rural mode of production 
(leading to 'feudalism') in western Europe. That could even be seen as 
a question of European rather than Asiatic exceptionalism. Outside that 
continent towns and ports did not disappear to be reborn as forerunners 
of capitalist enterprise; they continued to flourish throughout Asia and 
formed the nodes of exchange, manufacture, education, learning, and 
other specialist activity that pointed towards later developments. While 
the new towns of western Europe undoubtedly had some singular fea- 
tures of their own, they were hardly unique in the way that Weber and 
Braudel 6 posited. Wherever they were found, towns were involved in early 
mercantile ('capitalist') action, in India, in China, in the Near East. They 
were centres of specialist activities, of written culture, of commerce, of 
manufacture, and of consumption of various degrees of complexity car- 
ried out by merchants, artisans, and other bourgeois elements. Indeed 
while advanced industrial capitalism was developed in the west, it is a 
travesty of world history to see its early growth as being unique to that 
continent. The usual criteria of advanced capitalism are industrialization 
and high finance (Braudel) or extensive commerce (Marx, Wallerstein) . 
With mass production under industrial conditions, finance had neces- 
sarily to have a greater role and exchange became more intensive, but 
neither were new European features of the economy. Nor was industri- 
alization. It has been argued convincingly that industrialization marked 
some of the early manufacturing processes especially of China. Within 
Europe the industrial production of textiles certainly did not begin with 
the English cotton industry in the middle of the eighteenth century. It 
had already started in Italy in the eleventh with the reeling of silk which 
gave that country's industry a very considerable comparative advantage. 7 
Those processes were developed in competition with the silk imported 
from China and the Near East, manufactured eventually by water-driven 
machines, the plans for which were probably imported as well as the raw 

We need to query many of these old myths and take another look at the 
supposed discontinuity with the Bronze Age between ancient societies, 
Antiquity and feudalism. Elsewhere the history of urbanization displays 
a very different profile. Urban cultures, with their elements of 'luxury' 
and learning, continued to develop and change from those earlier times. 
The case of prepared food 8 and indeed of luxury products more generally 
such as domesticated flowers 9 helps us to do just this. What is especially 

6 Braudel 1981. 7 Poni 2001a and 2001b. 8 Goody 1982. 9 Goody 1993. 

Last words 301 

interesting about the development of hautes cuisines is the fact that they 
have appeared in all the major civilizations in Eurasia in what can be 
seen in very broad terms as roughly the same period. One can trace 
the emergence of a literature of connoisseurship in China, at roughly 
the same epoch as its emergence in Europe. 10 Complex cuisine came 
earlier in the former, but not if we count the ancient world in the eastern 
Mediterranean. Similar statements could be made about developments 
in many of the arts, including the complete rejection of forms of figurative 
representation (icons) that we find at certain times and certain places in 
all the major (i.e. written) world religions. 

If we were to take seriously those accounts of world development which 
see the east as static, the west as dynamic, over the long term - and even 
Braudel takes this line in his great synthesis on Civilization and capitalism 
15 th to 18 th century, this parallelism would seem surprising. Or again if 
one subscribes to the doctrines of 'Asiatic exceptionalism' or 'Oriental 
despotism', which would appear to inhibit this development of urban 
tastes, because urban they largely were. 

It is true that after the fall of the Roman Empire, or perhaps after 
the Muslim dominance of the Mediterranean, there was a decline of 
commerce and the decay of urban culture in the west, 11 partly linked to 
the coming of Christianity 12 where, for example, property was given to 
the Church rather than to the municipality. But the consequent stress 
on rural life, giving rise to the notion of feudalism, was a largely western 
phenomenon which cannot, should not, be seen as a necessary phase of 
the history of either world or European development. 

Elsewhere the urban civilization of the Bronze Age continued to pro- 
duce an increasingly wider range of artisanal and manufactured objects, 
a wider set of trading networks, a greater development of mercantile cul- 
ture. One step led to another in what Childe saw as 'social evolution'. 
Eventually the west caught up again after the revival of trade and the 
growth of towns that Pirenne speaks of in the eleventh century. That took 
place mainly because of the return of exchange with the Near East where 
urban mercantile culture had never disappeared, a return in which the 
role of Venice and other Italian centres was critical. 13 Elsewhere trade 
networks had continued to extend from the Bronze Age onwards, in 

10 Chinas 1991 and Brook 1998. 

11 This question has been usefully discussed by Hodges and Whitehouse (1983) who have 
attempted to modify the Pirenne thesis regarding the disruption of that trade (1939) 
with the aid of archaeological evidence. 

12 Speiser (1985) has argued the point in reference to some urban centres in the Byzantine 

13 Lane 1973. 

302 Three institutions and values 

Ceylon, 14 in South-East Asia, 13 in the Near East, 16 the Indian Ocean. 17 
Eventually Christian Europe caught up with the 'modernizing' process, 
often by borrowing from the east, for example, with printing, paper, silk 
weaving, the compass and gun powder, foods such as citrus and sugar, 
many species of flowers; they later developed, though did not originate, 
the process of industrial manufacture (as well as the manufacture of ships 
and armaments - the arsenal was particularly important in the develop- 
ment of industry and its production processes 18 ) in the course of which 
they gained an impressive comparative advantage. No sooner had it done 
so than advanced industrial activity began to spread to other parts of 
the world, especially among the metropolitan powers and in those places 
where the urban cultures of the Bronze Age had been most developed (as 
well as in some others as a result of migration) . 

While these processes of 'modernization' have proceeded more rapidly 
in some major societies in Eurasia than in others, the overall movement 
has been widespread. Archaeologists are used to dealing with general 
transitions of this kind, taking place in the same sequence but at different 
times, for example, the shift from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic. They 
tend to look for explanations, when they give them, in terms either of 
external communication or else of structural similarities arising internally 
from a parallel initial situation. 19 Anthropologists on the other hand often 
resort to vague indications of cultural change and historians to 'mentali- 
ties'. In my view this latter is dangerous territory for these scholars, and 
even more dangerous for the archaeologist who has less data to build on. 
Explanation based on culture or on mentalities may be misleading if it 
leads automatically to conceiving difference, which may well be tempo- 
rary, in a permanent frame. Some developments we have considered have 
run parallel courses over the long term in various post Bronze Age cul- 
tures, even if at somewhat different speeds. This process has not been a 
question of globalization as often understood, that is westernization today. 
Rather, it represents the growth of urban, bourgeois societies, which have 
been developing continually ever since the times of which Childe was 
writing, partly by interacting and exchanging with each other, partly by 
a kind of internal 'logic'. For these were merchant cultures, engaged in 
creating products and services which they would exchange with their own 
urban population, with the local countryside but also with other towns 

14 Perera 1951, 1952a and b. 

15 Sabloff and Lamberg-Karlovsky 1975; Leur 1955; Melink-Roelofsz 1962, 1970. 

16 Goitein 1967. 17 Casson 1989, for the Periplus. 18 Zan 2004. 

19 See G. Stein, The organizational dynamics of complexity in Greater Mesopotamia, in 
Stein and Rothman 1994, pp. 1 1-22. 

Last words 303 

elsewhere. They developed new products, improving upon the old, and 
they extended the range of their contacts. 

In essence the towns were 'ports of trade', to use an expression of Karl 
Polanyi (but in a somewhat different way) . They were making goods, pro- 
viding services, and from time to time improving those products, increas- 
ing their range and their clientele, rarely standing still. They were engaged 
in manufacture and trade to earn a living, which meant they had to make 
greater profits (or at least break even), not make a loss, in order to pay for 
a greater range of imports. They were therefore in continuous transition. 
Merchants, notes Southall, 20 were the 'essential midwives to the capi- 
talist mode of production, magnified and transformed into industrialists 
and financiers'. Following Weber, he sees this process as emerging in the 
feudal mode, although merchants have been an essential component of 
all towns and cities everywhere. 21 'Cities were the creation of merchants, 
which they struggled to defend against the state, creation of kings and 
nobles.' They were 'always the centres of innovation' especially, Southall 
claims, in feudal times, though that is something to be disputed. They 
were the centres too of class conflict, a 'theatre of perpetual social war of 
relentless cruelty' but at the same time scenes of great artistic activity. 22 

These activities should be seen as the roots of 'capitalism', at least of 
mercantile capitalism. Or perhaps of 'the sprouts of capitalism' as they 
have been designated by some Chinese scholars. At this level, there is no 
problem about the origin of capitalism or more importantly the growth of 
urban cultures in all their many socio-cultural forms, including the arts. 
About which, the great leap in our thinking comes when we realize that, 
whatever has taken place regarding the mass media of recent times, the 
west was not the inventor of these arts, of literature (the novel for exam- 
ple), of the theatre or of painting and sculpture, much less of a special set 
of values that permitted modernization to occur there and nowhere else. 
These activities have been developing throughout the urban societies of 
the Eurasian continent (and elsewhere), sometimes one society taking the 
lead, sometimes another. But early in the Middle Ages, the west fell dra- 
matically behind, partly because of the break with the classical past, partly 
because of the deliberate rejection of representation (anyhow secular) by 
early Christianity and the Abrahamic religion. 

I have spoken above of the broad base of mercantile capitalism; that 
base seems obvious enough given the extent of early merchant activi- 
ties in Asia and the export of Indian cotton to the East Indian islands 
(Indonesia) and to South-east Asia (Indo-China), as well as the export 

20 Southall 1998: 22. 21 Southall 1998: 21. 22 Southall 1998: 116-17. 

304 Three institutions and values 

of Chinese bronzes, silks, and porcelain throughout those regions. Com- 
pared to western Europe and even to the Mediterranean, in earlier times 
the Far East was a hive of mercantile activity. According to Bray, China 
remained the greatest economic power in the world until the end of the 
eighteenth century. 2 ^ What about manufacture, and even industry, which 
are rightly seen as the key features of modern capitalism? Such widespread 
exchange in East Asia already involved manufacturing. Ceramics were not 
the only product that was subject to large-scale techniques. In India as in 
China textiles were produced predominantly on a domestic basis, often 
organized by merchants by means of putting-out systems and cottage 
industries similar to proto-industrial Europe. 24 But there were also large 
factory-type institutions. 23 In China a more impressive example was the 
important paper industry. That situation reflects the fact that, through- 
out the major societies of Asia, urban cultures had experienced a more or 
less continuous development over the long term beginning with those of 
the Bronze Age. There were interruptions, due to ecological, economic, 
military, and even religious factors - invasions of 'barbarians', disrup- 
tion of commerce, failures of government, the prohibition of printing. 
But overall urban cultures developed in complexity over the centuries, in 
relation to production, exchange, distribution, finance as well as to mate- 
rial, artistic and intellectual life, in the arts, in education, in commerce, 
and manufacture. However, most western historians, looking back ide- 
ologically after the Industrial Revolution, have overlooked these parallel 
developments and tried to account for later advantage in terms of imag- 
ined earlier ones. The relative unity of the Bronze Age was disregarded 
and they posited the emergence of Antiquity in Europe and nowhere else. 
For most authors that uniqueness was also true of feudalism and again 
of capitalism which is the point from which they started their search. 
In this way, the broad continuity of post-Bronze Age societies has been 
disastrously fractured by a concentration on European experience alone, 
a concentration by scholars and public alike that has led to the theft of 

To affect a valid comparison would involve using not predetermined 
categories of the kind Antiquity, feudalism, capitalism, but abandoning 
these concepts to construct a sociological grid laying out the possible 
variations of what is being compared. That is notably lacking from most 
historical discourse in the west. Instead historians have simply claimed 
desirable and 'progressive' features for themselves. They have stolen 
history by imposing their categories and sequences on the rest of the 

23 Bray 2000: 1. 24 Bray 1997. 25 Goody 1996b: 187. 

Last words 305 

The problem of the theft of history and of the social sciences also 
affects other humanities. In recent years, scholars have also taken steps 
to make their disciplines more comparative, more relevant to the rest of 
the world. But these measures are grossly inadequate to the task. Liter- 
ature has become 'comparative literature' but the range of comparison 
is usually limited to a few European sources; the east is ignored, oral 
cultures unconsidered. The field of cultural studies, both in its British 
and its American variants, is chaotic. The textual base of the latter is vir- 
tually exclusively western writings, usually philosophers, often French, 
who comment upon life without offering much data except their own 
internal reflections or comments upon other philosophers, all represen- 
tative of modern, urban societies. The level of generality of such com- 
ments is such that one has no real need of information to enter into the 

In conclusion, this has been a book not so much about world history 
as about the way that European scholars have perceived it. The problem 
comes in trying to explain the background of the comparative advantage 
Europe achieved. Searching back in history almost inevitably invites a 
teleological bias, whether implicit or explicit. In looking at what led to 
one's own 'modernization', one makes judgements about other people, 
their lack of the Protestant ethic, of the entrepreneurial spirit, of the ability 
to change, that is thought to have made this difference. 

A fundamental difficulty in that history is the way that the later advan- 
tage of Europe has been specified. If that continent is seen as developing 
a unique form of the economy, something called 'capitalism', then one is 
justified in tracing back its roots, to 'absolutism', to 'feudalism', to Antiq- 
uity, even to seeing it as the result of a cluster of unparalleled institutions, 
virtues and emotions, even religion. But supposing the development of 
human society from the Bronze Age is regarded in different terms, as an 
ongoing elaboration of urban and mercantile culture without any sharp 
breaks involving categorical distinctions of the kind suggested by the use 
of the term 'capitalist'. In his magisterial survey, Braudel in fact adopts 
the position that such activity is found throughout the range of society 
with which he is dealing, in Asia as in Europe. However, he reserves the 
concept of 'true capitalism' for the modern west, just as Needham does 
with 'modern science' as contrasted with 'science'. But if 'capitalism' is 
seen as characterizing all these societies, its uniqueness inevitably dis- 
appears and so too does the problem of explanation. One is left with 
explaining increasing intensity, with elaboration rather than categorical 
change. Indeed the situation might be clarified by the abandonment of 
the term 'capitalism' altogether, since its use will always tend to suggest 
some kind of long-term, privileged position for the west. So why not 

306 Three institutions and values 

phrase the discussion for the advantage of the west in modern times in 
terms of the intensification of economic and other activities within the 
long-term framework of urban and mercantile developments, a frame- 
work that would allow for periods of more or less intense activity and 
would take full account of the negative as well as the positive aspects of 
the 'civilizing process'? Of course, this sequence needs cutting up, peri- 
odizing from time to time, but we can speak of the increasing scope of 
industrialization, even of an Industrial Revolution, without denying the 
beginnings of this process to Asian or other societies, without regarding 
it as a purely European development. 


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Abbasids 112 

Abelard, Peter 268 

Absolutism 21, 94, 96, 98, 118, 160, 

163-4, 170, 199,305 
abuse 167 
accountancy 194 
Aceh 111, 114 
Adam and Eve 277-9 
Adams, R. M. 8, 57 
Aegean 60, 64, 64n, 1 1 1 
affective life 160, 170, 267 

emotions 160, 176-7 

guilt 156, 164-5, 167, 171, 177 

inhibition 168 

insecurity 176 

instinct 163-5, 169, 176 

internalization 167 

restraint 156, 159, 161-2, 164-5, 167, 
169, 173, 177, 178, 179, 193 

self-detachment 173 

shame 156, 159, 165, 167, 171, 172, 

unconscious, the 177 
Africa 1, 8, 14, 26, 31, 51, 64, 74, 

African time' 17 

agriculture 3, 119, 154 

calendar 15 

contrast with Eurasia 119-20, 136 

cuisine 119 

and feudalism 91-3 

flowers 120 

market 41, 45 

military coups 249 

North 27, 51, 73-5, 85, 99, 115 

one-party rule 249, 251 

orality 14 

political systems 53 

religion 62 

sectarianism 249 

Sub-Saharan 58 

trade 75 

Aghlabid 76 

Agoston, G. 104 

agriculture: advanced 188, 207, 259 

agro-city 222 

Bronze Age 3 

and feudalism 77, 91-2, 95 

hoe 3-4, 28, 48, 51, 101, 119, 154, 

irrigation 3-4, 40, 70, 85-6, 100, 108, 
136, 207, 293 

manorial system 79, 92, 109 

plough 3, 48, 80, 87, 91, 100, 154, 188 
262, 287 

plough and inequality 221 

property law 58-9 

rain-fed 3-4, 40, 70, 293, 298 

and South America, 116 

and technology 84 

and transport 84 

and Turkey 102, 108 
Akenaton 62 
Akkadia 27, 42, 48 
Albania, clans 51 
alcohol 184 

Alexander the Great 39-40 
Alexandria 20, 69, 71-2, 75, 87, 223, 

Algarve 115 
Almoravids 271 
alphabet 5, 26-7, 31-3, 35, 67, 289-90 

consonantal 31-2 

and Europe 66 

Greek 5, 26-7, 35, 67, 289 

and printing 86, 129, 132 

Phoenician 63-4, 100, 287 

Semitic 67 

Ugarit 289 

West Semitic 32 
Amain 75-6, 206, 218-19 
America, United States of 9 1 

colonies 51, 115 

'freedom fries' 255 




Native Americans 56 

south 117 

south-west 5 
Americas 6n, 8, 14, 28, 103, 

discovery of, 50 

South 116 

treasures 190 
Amsterdam 134 
anatomy 73 
Andalusia 3, 186 
Anderson, Perry 2, 70, 78-9, 81-2, 84, 

Angevin dynasty 75—6 
Antioch 71, 73, 75-6 

Antiquity 2-5, 8-9, 21-68, 130, 241, 287, 
300, 305 

and capitalism 38, 44-5, 79, 97, 119, 

classes 49 

crop development 66 

Dark Age 44 

democracy 26, 33, 49-60, 77, 287, 

Doric invasions 28 

and Europe 49, 52, 100, 134 

trade and 'ancient' economy 26, 29, 
38-48, 290 

and feudalism 68-9, 77-82, 91, 

and five-stage theory 86, 289 

freedom 26, 31, 55, 290-1 

'great organization' 290 

individualism 33, 35, 290 

and Islam 131 

market 26, 40-2, 44-8 

merchants 46—9 

metals 66 

modernist-primitivist controversy 45, 

Near East 27, 29-31, 33-6, 38-41, 
46-7, 51,57-8,61,63 

oikos 41, 44 

periodization 82 

politics 48-60 

rationality 290 

religion 60-4 

rule of law 26 

slavery 7, 26, 29, 55-7 

towns 215 

water engineering 66 

water-mills 82 

and see Egypt, Ancient 

Etruscan civilization 

Greece, Ancient 


Rome, Ancient 
anthropology 45, 58, 62 

'anfhropo-archaeological' approach 121, 

fieldwork 178 

philosophical 157 
Apamea 70, 80 
Aquinas, St. Thomas 232 
Arabi, Ibn 238, 275 
Arabia 20, 81 

Arabic 21, 31 

astronomy 2 1 

mathematics 21 

numerals 296 
Arabs, the 5 

alchemy 297 

Bedouin 30 

carpets 185 

countries 69 

divan 185 

expansion 74, 91, 224 

Isnad 9 

medicine 73 

Near East 7 1 

paper 66 

philosophy 23 

poetry 224 

scholars 72 

science 87 

'settled' 30 

tables 185 

trade 115 

translations 237 

world histories 1 3 
Archaemenic culture 34 
Archaic Society see Greece, Ancient 
archaeology 27, 33 

'anfhropo-archaeological' 121, 287 
architecture 218-20 

Amain 218-20 

Arabic 219-20 

Greek 26 

Venice 219 
Aristotle 54n, 100, 133, 223-5, 237-8 

African 176, 178 

Gothic 219 

Greek 26, 295 

magic 176 

music 244 

non-naturalistic 177 

plastic 244 

Renaissance 126-9 

theatre 244 



Asia 2, 4, 13-14, 21-2, 25-7, 36, 54 

'Asiatic mode of production' 28, 97, 

Asiatic states' 

and Europe 4—5, 7 

and capitalism 144 

civilization 183 

connoisseurship 296, 300 

economy 71, 84, 92,96 

'exceptionalism' 4, 9, 25, 66, 84, 100-1, 
105, 287, 294, 296, 298, 300-1 

and feudalism 91, 93-6 

and Greece 1 9 

'oriental despotism' 4, 9, 25, 40, 50-1, 
54, 97, 99-122, 136, 186, 289, 293, 

paper 22 

and Rome 70 

trade 75, 115 

and see China, East, East-West, India, 
Asia Minor 19, 36 

industrialization 111 
Assyria 34, 54, 56 

Assyriology 50 
astronomy 22 

Arabic 21 

astrolabe 21 

astrology 18 
Athens 27, 46-7, 50, 52-3, 71, 134, 223, 

Atlantic Powers 56, 100, 103, 110, 

empires 182 
Australians, Native 56 

'Dream Time' 22 
Avaris 62 
Averrhoes 237 
Avicenna 73 

Babylon 56, 134 

Akkadian documents 27 

maps 21 

temple research 231 
Bacon, Francis 292 
Bacon, Roger 148, 150, 238 
Baghdad 73 

Bagre, the 23, 37, 245, 280 
Balazs, Etienne 138-9 
Balkans 58, 70, 85, 99, 104 
Baltic 87, 110, 127 
banking 90, 131, 191, 204, 293 

bankers of Shansi 201 

Italian 205 

barbarism 50, 64, 154-5, 224, 236 

and Ancient Greece 27, 29, 29n 
Barotse (Lozi) 58 
Basra 114 
bath/bathing 163 

and luxury 218 
Bath, Slicher van 79 
Beijing 32, 145 
Berlin, Isaiah 55 
Bernal, Martin 5, 32, 57n, 60-3, 

Black Sea 60, 110-11 
blast furnaces 209 
Blaut,J. M. 7, 169,298 
Bloch, Marc 68 
Boccacio 76, 90 
Bologna 73, 88, 94, 96, 113, 215, 229-30, 

bourgeoisie 172, 191, 194, 196, 198, 199, 

Braudel, Fernand 2, 9, 66, 94, 96, 98, 
HOn, 125, 137-8, 153, 180-211, 
220, 263-5, 293, 296-7, 300-1, 305 
Bray, Francesca 92 
Brazil 116 
Britain, Great education 129 

Empire 20 

Greenwich meridian 20-1 

law 141-2 

Roman 70, 80 

and space 20 

potter's wheel 216 

textiles 88 

water-mill 8 1 
bronze 101, 104, 304 
Bronze Age society 2-3, 6, 21, 25—6, 

28-33, 35, 38-41, 44-5, 47, 50, 56-7, 
59, 66, 69, 97, 100, 120, 122, 135, 
137, 140, 156, 158n, 262, 280, 290, 

onset of 'civilization' 166, 287, 299 

Urban Revolution 6, 29, 69, 100-1, 121, 
128, 130, 135, 137, 190, 193, 202, 
209-10, 300-5 
Brook, T.vii, 129, 143n 
Brotton, Jerry 8, 127, 129, 129n, 132 
Bruges 90, 113, 127,205 
Bucher, Karl 38 
Buddhism 95, 147, 153, 194, 197, 259 

lunar calendar 1 5 
Burke, Peter 8, 132 
Burkhardt, J. 35, 37, 67, 127 
Bush, George W. 253, 255 
Bursa 88, 93, 110 
Busbeq, Ghiselin de 1 7 



Byzantium 9, 61, 71, 73-4, 76, 86, 97, 
Empire 69, 81, 110-11 
and feudalism 93 
renaissance 9 
and Turkey 99 

Cadmus 64 
Cairo 74-6, 135 
Canary Islands 115-16 
Capitalism 21, 25-6, 38, 66, 67, 92, 97-8, 
125, 143-4, 180-211, 299-300 

'agrarian' 45 

and Antiquity 38, 44-5, 79, 97, 1 19, 215 

colonial 199 

commercial 199 

early 201 

entrepreneurial 256, 305 

European 'invention' of 1—4, 6, 126, 
128, 133 

and feudalism 92-3 

finance 181, 184, 196, 293, 300 

and five-stage theory 86 

full 204 

industrial 45, 68, 86, 91-2, 94, 96, 195 

and the market 4, 6, 41, 45 

mercantile 4, 6, 67-8, 128, 181, 210, 
293, 300, 303 

micro-capitalism 195 

and pepper 114 

pre-capitalist formations 45 

speculation 204 

'sprouts of 303 

and sugar 115-16 

'true' 195-6, 198, 200, 202-6, 210-11, 
293, 297, 305 

and Turkey 104 and see market, the 

Carolingian period 68, 87, 110 

and feudalism 81-5 

Renaissance 87 
Carthage 40, 61, 63-5, 71, 73-4, 79, 95, 

democracy 53—4, 291 

Punic War 53 
Cartledge, R. 40, 42 
Caskey, J. 76 
Cathars 274, 278, 280 
Caucasus 75, 111 
Central America 42 
Central Asia 30, 95, 112 
ceramics, glazed 219 

porcelain 39, 292, 304 
Chaldea zodiac 18 
Champagne Fairs 89, 113, 127 

charity 228-9, 240, 258, 261-2, 265, 278, 
280, 298 

and classes 280 

and luxury 261-6 
Charles II of Sicily 76 
Chaucer, Geoffrey 135 
Chayanov, A. V. 106 

Childe, Gordon 3, 29, 47, 54, 57, 71, 78, 
287, 289, 298, 301-2 

anfhropo-archaeological approach 287, 

social evolution 301 
China 2, 4-5, 6n, 20-1, 29, 39, 51, 73, 
100, 192, 194, 210, 243, 290, 296, 

agriculture 85, 145, 150, 188 

art 127 

Book of Songs 269 

botany 100 

bourgeoisie 135—9 

bureaucracy 134-9, 142-3 

calendar 15, 18 

and capitalism 92, 94, 96, 136, 138-40, 
142, 182-3, 185 

cavalry 85 

ceramics 294 

checks and balances on government 252 

clans 192 

clocks 17 

clothing 185 

Communist 32, 153 

connoisseurship 296, 301 

cuisine 119, 145 

diplomacy 96 

economy 100, 133, 136-46, 189, 286 

Empire 101, 241n 

European views of, 127, 190 

fairs 197 

fashion 265 

and feudalism 92, 95, 109, 139-40, 143 

flowers 120, 145 

gambling 191 

guns 17, 103 

gunpowder 103 

Han 142 

horseshoe 8 1 

industry 88 

inventions 81 

junks 198 

law 134, 141-6, 241n 

Manchus 30 

mathematics 132, 134 

millennium 13 

New Songs from a Jade Terrace 269 

New Year 14 



China {com.) 

Northern Sung 88 

the novel 120, 132, 145, 296 

'Palace Style Poetry' 269, 284 

paper 66, 131-2 

philosophy 23, 37 

printing 66, 86, 116, 132 

religion 146, 153, 234 

science 9, 16, 125, 128, 129n, 131-6, 
138-40, 143, 145-53, 243 

script 32, 100 

Shang 88 

silk 111-12 

spur 8 1 

'static' 118 

stirrup 85 

Sung 138-9, 142-3 

Tang 59 

technology 132, 145 

textiles 88, 113 

towns 138-9 

trade 114, 137-9, 142, 145, 148, 198-9, 

and universities 150, 229, 231, 297 

water-power 81, 145 

wheelbarrow 288 

world histories 1 3 
chivalry 160, 262 
chocolate 184 

Christianity 2, 6, 16, 31, 35, 69-70, 72, 
116-17, 132, 146, 182, 194, 204, 
210, 216, 241, 259, 261, 267-8, 
275-80, 295, 298, 301, 303 

art 72 

buildings 74 

calendar 14—15 

Catholicism 130-1, 182 

Christendom 20, 118, 242 

Christmas 15, 22 

cities 74 

dissection 72 

dualistic creeds 277 

Easter 15,22 

eastern 73 

and Europe 19, 61, 289 

'feminization' 268 

the incarnation 276 

international calculus 22 

Jesuits 17, 127, 131 

knowledge 72, 216, 223, 227-35, 
238-9, 245 

missionaries 178, 244 

monasteries 73, 224 

Nestorians 73, 75, 93, 231 

New Testament 32 

papacy 90 

Pentecostal church 179 

pilgrimages 19, 144, 197 

Protestantism 6, 35, 62, 129-31, 153, 
171, 182, 207, 235, 293, 299 

and the Renaissance 130 

salvation 274 

and space 19 

and trade 75 

and Turkey 99 
citizenship 154, 164 
city see Towns 
city-states 191, 192, 206, 220, 256, 288, 

civilization 154-6, 173, 177, 179, 191, 
193, 195,210 

Asia 183 

civilizing process 169, 171 

decivilization 170 

norms of civilized behaviour 176 

pyschical process 160 
class 160, 203, 222-3, 258, 261, 265, 

conflict 191, 303 

proletariat 155, 207 
cleanliness, bodily 173-4 
clocks 15, 17,21, 116 

candle 17 

China 17 

clepsydra 17 

clockwork 17 

Europe 17 

sundial 17 
club 222 
Cnossos 31 
coal 188,207-8 

coke 188 
cocoa 186 
coffee 184, 186 

Columbus, Christopher 50, 118 
commenda 198 

communication, Modes of 3, 26, 31, 33, 
39, 70, 86, 131-2, 195, 236, 284 

'technologies of the intellect' 33, 35, 289 

and see information, knowledge, literacy, 
printing, writing 
Comte, Auguste 128 
Confucius 32, 101, 147 

Confucianism 153, 162 
Constantine, Emperor 82, 237 
Constantine the African 226, 296 
Constantinople 20, 68-9, 72, 74-6, 85, 87, 
89,93, 104, 114,239 

literacy 217 

university 223 



consumption, mass 167, 263—4 

Cordoba 76, 112, 191,220 

Coulbourn, R. 7, 91, 292 

courtoisie 161 

Crete 27, 31, 63, 115 

Crimea 109, 111 

Crombie, A. C. 147 

Crusades, the 19,61,75,82,91, 113, 115, 

cuisine 119, 200, 204 
culture 155 

concepts of 181, 187 

consumer 207 

'simple' 162, 176 
cultural relativism 126 
cultural studies 305 
Cycladic culture 34 
Cyprus 31-2, 105, 115-16 

ethnic cleansing 252 

Damascus 110 

Dante 61, 238, 276, 295 

Dark Ages 21, 81 

Darwinism 159, 242, 244 

Delft 39 

democracy, acclamation 251 

and Antiquity 26, 33, 49-60, 77, 287, 

Carthage 53—4 

citizenship 253 

coercion 249 

'consociational' 253 

electoral 240, 249n 

Europe 1-2, 9, 13, 117, 126, 127, 163, 
245, 265, 289 

exclusion 253 

freedom of choice 249 

'full' 253 

Greek 26, 30, 49-60, 253 

European 'invention' of 1—2, 9, 13, 256 

iron 290 

majority 249 

mass-media control 255 

opinion polls 251 

Phoenicia 53 

political parties 251 

positive discrimination 253, 259 

'power sharing' 252 

'primitive' 49 

referenda 251 

recall 251 

right to, 24 

Sparta 33 

and tribes 30, 50 

as value, 245, 247, 249 

vote 250, 252-3, 255-6 

Westminster model 249, 256 
demographic history 281, 299 

restraints 298 

transition 267, 283 
De Quincey, Thomas 128 
destruction, modes of 3 

weapons of, 2 1 

see guns 
dictatorship 163-4, 251-2, 254 

authoritarianism 256 

fascism 254 
dissection 72-3, 226 
Doura-Europus 73 
dress 168 
Dronke, Peter 270 
Duby, Georges 267-8 
Dun Scotus 238 

Durkheim, Emile 30, 53, 162, 169, 171, 
172, 282 

school of, 7n 

solidarity 162 
Diirr, Hans Peter 158 
Dutch Golden Age 208 

East, the 6n: agriculture 3 

civilization 3 

markets 71 

porcelain techniques 39 

trade 103 

and see Asia, East- West, Far East, Near 
East India Company 110 
East Indies 20 
east-west 2-3, 8, 14, 19, 27, 31, 92 

civilizations 263 

cuisine 119, 132 

common development 4, 8, 25, 89, 100, 
103, 111, 118-22, 144, 150 

divergence 2, 67, 100, 102, 119, 139, 

Europe/Asia opposition 61 

feudalism 121-2 

flowers 120, 132 

glass 120 

inequality 258 

interaction 6, 98, 112, 296 

livelihood dichotomy 66 

marriage 116 

the novel 132 

painting 120 

paper 120 

and the Renaissance 130—1 

renascences 130 

science 132 



east-west (cont.) 

social differentiation 258 

silk 120 

theatre 120, 132 

towns 215 

trade 95, 132, 148 

'tributary' states 121-2, 299 

war 106 
education and the European Renaissance 
129, 148 

higher 229-32, 234, 236, 239 

and Islam 129, 227-30, 232, 234, 236, 
261,273n, 297 

schools 127-8, 216, 223-6, 228, 231, 
233, 238, 245, 292, 295 

schools in medieval Europe 216 

stratification 259 
Egypt 76, 111-12, 116, 131, 189 

Muslim Brotherhood 244 
Egypt, Ancient 29, 31-2, 40, 54, 56, 60, 
64-5, 70 

Aramaic documents 27 

flowers 269 

painting 34 

religion 61—3 

statuary 34 
Elias, Norbert 154, 170, 185, 241, 268, 
279, 287, 299, 306 

'civilizing process' 9, 125, 293, 297 

figurations 155 
Elvin, Mark 88-9, 91, 132, 139, 142-3, 

147, 150-2, 229, 243, 265 
England 4 

colonialism 114-15 

Industrial Revolution 87, 94 

textiles 85, 87, 90, 127,300 

and see Britain, Great 
Enlightenment, the 8, 16, 24, 185, 197, 

203, 241^, 265 
equality 189, 240, 247, 257-9, 262, 

fraternity 246, 261 
etiquette, books of 160 
Etruscan civilization 29 
Euclid 134 
Eurasia see Asia, East, the 



West, the 
Europe 1-13, 21, 158, 163, 165, 187, 201, 
203, 286, 304-5 

alcohol 184 

alphabet 66 

and Antiquity 49, 289 

aristocracy 135 

bourgeoisie 134-5, 190, 265, 297, 299 

Eastern 29, 58, 70 

and emotions 267-85 

eurocentricity 1, 4-7, 9, 32, 61, 96, 100, 
102-3, 126, 263 

and capitalism 1-4, 6, 86, 126, 128, 
133, 180-11,292-3 

cannons 104 

centralization 96 

Christianity 19, 289 

'civilized' 154-81 

clocks 17 

colonialism 13, 20-1, 168, 201, 286 

commercial revolution 131 

cuisine 119 

and democracy 1—2, 9, 13, 117, 126, 

dominance 5, 61, 127 

economy 38, 69, 88, 92, 94 

and emotions 297, 305 

family 126, 257 

freedom 126 

'good manners' 173, 185 

and individualism 1, 9, 126 

invention 184, 263 

and Islam 6 1 

guns 5, 66, 110, 117 

love 9, 126,297 

mathematics 134 

modernity 82 

the novel 120 

'people, the' 51 

philosophy 23 

printing 66, 86, 117, 129 

renaissance 8—9, 126—7 

sails 5, 66, 117 

science 133, 135, 148-53 

sidereal year 1 5 

slavery 55 

southern 4 

space 19 

tables and chairs 185 

towns 9, 134,204,215-22 

trade 89, 110, 148 

and Turkey 99 

universities 9 

values 240-66 

and virtues 305 

and see feudalism 
Evans, Arthur 3 1 

Evans-Pritchard, E. 50, 97, 240, 282 
evolution, social 201 
exploration, world 'Age of 66, 182 

European 21, 66 
Eyck,JanVan 126, 127n 



fairs 89, 113, 127, 144, 196-7 

annual 15 
family 3, 176 

conjugal 257, 267 

and equality 259 

and Europe 126, 130 

extended 282 

firms 257 

inheritance 119 

kin groups 284 

kinship 2, 4, 257, 281 

lineage society 53, 282 

nuclear 2, 256, 281-2 

segmentary lineages 171, 249, 

siblings 259 

and see marriage 
Far East 32, 57, 85-6, 103, 129 

peddler economy 7 1 
fashion 185, 263-4 

and class 265 

and the economy 113 

status markers 265 
Fatamid dynasty 76 
Fernandez-Armesto, F. 8, 14, 20, 101, 

166, 182,237,293 
Fertile Crescent 29, 100 
fetishes 177, 178, 179 
feudalism 4, 6-7, 21, 23, 28, 41, 68-98, 
108, 121, 126, 156, 160-1, 200, 203, 
291, 293, 299-300, 304-5 

and Africa 9 1 

and Antiquity 77-81, 128 

and capitalism 92-3, 215, 289 

and Carolingian period 81-5 

and cavalry warfare 85-7 

Japan 78, 91-2, 94-6 

and Middle Ages 81 

'military' and 'bureaucratic' 121-2, 

parcellized sovereignty 221 

towns 87, 215 

trade and manufacture 87-91 
Finley, Moses 2, 7, 33-6, 38-40, 42-7, 

49-50, 54, 56-8, 65, 71, 79, 287 
Flanders 90, 209